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Apple reaches quiet truce over iPhone privacy changes

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Enlarge / A privacy notice appears on an iPhone 12 under the new iOS 14.5.1 operating system. Developers of an application have to ask for the user’s permission to allow cross-app tracking.

Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Apple has allowed app developers to collect data from its 1 billion iPhone users for targeted advertising, in an unacknowledged shift that lets companies follow a much looser interpretation of its controversial privacy policy.

In May Apple communicated its privacy changes to the wider public, launching an advert that featured a harassed man whose daily activities were closely monitored by an ever-growing group of strangers. When his iPhone prompted him to “Ask App Not to Track,” he clicked it and they vanished. Apple’s message to potential customers was clear—if you choose an iPhone, you are choosing privacy.

But seven months later, companies including Snap and Facebook have been allowed to keep sharing user-level signals from iPhones, as long as that data is anonymised and aggregated rather than tied to specific user profiles.

For instance Snap has told investors that it plans to share data from its 306 million users—including those who ask Snap “not to track”—so advertisers can gain “a more complete, real-time view” on how ad campaigns are working. Any personally identifiable data will first be obfuscated and aggregated.

Similarly, Facebook operations chief Sheryl Sandberg said the social media group was engaged in a “multiyear effort” to rebuild ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data”.

These companies point out that Apple has told developers they “may not derive data from a device for the purpose of uniquely identifying it.” This means they can observe “signals” from an iPhone at a group level, enabling ads that can still be tailored to “cohorts” aligning with certain behavior but not associated with unique IDs.

This type of tracking is becoming the norm. Oren Kaniel, the chief executive of AppsFlyer, a mobile attribution platform that works with app developers, said that when his company introduced such a “privacy-centric” tool based on aggregated measurement in July 2020, “the level of pushback that we received from the entire ecosystem was huge.”

But now such aggregated solutions are the default for 95 percent of his clients. “The market changed their minds in a radical way,” he said.

It is not clear whether Apple has actually blessed these solutions. Apple declined to answer specific questions for this article but described privacy as its North Star, implying it was setting a general destination rather than defining a narrow pathway for developers.

Cory Munchbach, chief operating officer at customer data platform BlueConic, said Apple had to stand back from a strict reading of its rules because the disruption to the mobile ads ecosystem would be too great.

“Apple can’t put themselves in a situation where they are basically gutting their top-performing apps from a user-consumption perspective,” she said. “That would ultimately hurt iOS.”

For anyone interpreting Apple’s rules strictly, these solutions break the privacy rules set out to iOS users.

Lockdown Privacy, an app that blocks ad trackers, has called Apple’s policy “functionally useless in stopping third-party tracking.” It performed a variety of tests on top apps and observed that personal data and device information is still “being sent to trackers in almost all cases.”

But the companies aggregating user-level data said the reason apps continue to “leak” information such as a user’s IP address and location was simply because some require such information to function. Advertisers must know certain things such as the user’s language or the device screen size, otherwise the app experience would be awful.

The risk is that by allowing user-level data to be used by opaque third parties so long as they promise not to abuse it, Apple is in effect trusting the very same groups that chief executive Tim Cook has lambasted as “hucksters just looking to make a quick buck.”

Companies will pledge that they only look at user-level data once it has been anonymized, but without access to the data or algorithms working behind the scenes, users won’t really know if their data privacy has been preserved, said Munchbach.

“If historical precedent in adtech holds, those black boxes hide a lot of sins,” she said. “It’s not unreasonable to assume it leaves a lot to be desired.”

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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Fitbits will soon lose the ability to sync with computers

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Enlarge / The Fitbit Ionic currently lets you download music to the device.

Valentina Palladino

Fitbit owners who like to sync their fitness tracker with a computer to enable offline listening of downloaded music without a monthly fee will soon need to change their approach.

As spotted by 9to5Google on Saturday, Fitbit will no longer allow users to sync their devices over a computer starting in October.

“On October 13, 2022, we’re removing the option to sync your Fitbit device with the Fitbit Connect app on your computer,” a Fitbit support page reads. “Download and use the Fitbit app on your phone to sync your device.”

The Fitbit Connect desktop software lets you transfer music from your computer to the wearable if you have a supporting watch. Newer devices, like the Fitbit Sense and Versa 3, cannot store downloaded music.

After October, owners of older Fitbits, like the Fitbit Versa and Versa 2, will also have to rely on subscriptions to not-so-popular services for offline music. “After the Fitbit Connect app on your computer is deactivated, you can continue to transfer music to your watch through the Deezer app. Customers in the United States can also use the Pandora app,” Fitbit’s support page says.

Deezer and Pandora both require monthly subscriptions for music downloading and offline listening, with fees starting at $10 per month after any eligible trial periods.

Remember, Fitbits still don’t let you add music you’ve downloaded through streaming services, though you can control music on your smartphone with a Fitbit.

The new limitation shouldn’t last forever. When Google acquired Fitbit in 2021, the fitness tracker company confirmed that Fitbits running Google’s Wear OS are on the way. Wear OS has offline support for subscribers to Spotify Premium and YouTube Music.

The death of the Fitbit Connect desktop app will mean that Fitbit wearers who have managed to avoid the brand’s mobile app have fewer options. An increasingly subscription-focused marketplace has been coming for a long time now. Fitbit Connect is still downloadable on Windows 10 and Mac OS X, but the company says the Fitbit app for iPhone and Android provides the “best experience.”

For now, you can still download and listen to music from your Fitbit; you just won’t be able to add more songs after October.

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Google hits back at Sonos with voice command patent lawsuit

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Enlarge / Sonos Beam soundbar.

Sonos

Google and Sonos are headed back to court. After Google lost an earlier patent case over speaker volume controls, Google is now suing Sonos over voice control technology. Google confirmed the lawsuit to The Verge this morning, with the company saying it wants to “defend our technology and challenge Sonos’s clear, continued infringement of our patents.” Google alleges infringement of seven patents related to voice input, including hot-word detection and a system that determines which speaker in a group should respond to voice commands.

Sonos has typically supported the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa for voice control, but Google and Amazon are also Sonos’s biggest speaker competitors. So Sonos launched its own voice assistant feature in May, opening it up to this new pile of Google patents. (For now, Sonos supports all three options.)

Google rarely uses patents offensively, but this is part of a multi-lawsuit battle that has sent the company’s smart speaker line reeling after Google lost a previous ruling in January. Rather than pay royalties to Sonos, Google decided to reach into customers’ homes and start breaking devices they had already bought. Google stripped Nest Audio and Google Home speakers of the ability to control volume for a speaker group, turning what was an effortless and common-sense task into an ordeal requiring a screen full of individual sliders. It’s hard to overstate how annoying this is for consumers, as volume control is a primary function of any speaker.

Sonos originated the connected speaker concept, but it has been facing competition from Big Tech giants in recent years. Sonos says it gave Google an inside look at its operations in 2013 while Sonos was asking for Google Play Music support and that Google used that access to “blatantly and knowingly copy” Sonos’s technology. Google’s first smart speaker launched three years later.

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Rumors, delays, and early testing suggest Intel’s Arc GPUs are on shaky ground

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Enlarge / Arc is Intel’s attempt to shake up the GPU market.

Almost a year ago, Intel made a big announcement about its push into the dedicated graphics business. Intel Arc would be the brand name for a new batch of gaming GPUs, pushing far beyond the company’s previous efforts and competing directly with Nvidia’s GeForce and AMD’s Radeon GPUs.

Arc is the culmination of years of work, going back to at least 2017, when Intel poached AMD GPU architect Raja Koduri to run its own graphics division. And while Intel would be trying to break into an established and fiercely competitive market, it would benefit from the experience and gigantic install base that the company had cultivated with its integrated GPUs.

Intel sought to prove its commitment to Arc by showing off a years-long road map, with four separate named GPU architectures already in the pipeline. Sure, the GPUs wouldn’t compete with top-tier GeForce and Radeon cards, but they would address the crucial mainstream GPU market, and high-end cards would follow once the brand was more established.

All of that makes Arc a lot more serious than Larrabee, Intel’s last effort to break into the dedicated graphics market. Larrabee was canceled late in its development because of delays and disappointing performance, and Arc GPUs are actual things that you can buy (if only in a limited way, for now). But the challenges of entering the GPU market haven’t changed since the late 2000s. Breaking into a mature market is difficult, and experience with integrated GPUs isn’t always applicable to dedicated GPUs with more complex hardware and their own pool of memory.

Regardless of the company’s plans for future architectures, Arc’s launch has been messy. And while the company is making some efforts to own those problems, a combination of performance issues, timing, and financial pressures could threaten Arc’s future.

Early turbulence

A year after its announcement, it seems that Arc is already on shaky ground. Intel has proven characteristically incapable of meeting its initial launch estimates, just barely managing to pull off a paper launch of two low-end laptop GPUs in Q1 (the original launch window) and failing to follow up with widely available desktop cards in Q2. The company has been very public about its driver struggles with drivers, which are hurting the cards’ performance in older but still widely played games. And the graphics division is losing money at a time when revenue is tumbling across the company.

And that’s just what is happening in public. A report from the German-language Igor’s Lab claims that Intel’s board partners (the ones who would be putting the Arc GPU dies on boards, packaging them, and shipping them out) and the OEMs who would be putting Arc GPUs into their prebuilt computers are getting frustrated with the delays and lack of communication.

A long, conspiratorial video from YouTuber Moore’s Law is Dead goes even farther, suggesting (using a combination of “internal sources” and speculation) that people in Intel’s graphics division are “lying” to consumers and others in the company about the state of the GPUs, that the first-generation Alchemist architecture has fundamental performance-limiting flaws, and that Intel is having internal discussions about discontinuing Arc GPUs after the second-generation “Battlemage” architecture.

We’ve contacted Intel and several GPU manufacturers to see if they had anything to share on the matter; the short version is no—Intel has no news on release dates. Asus says it “[doesn’t] currently have anything in the pipeline for Intel Arc on the North America side,” and other companies haven’t responded yet. For his part, Intel graphics VP Raja Koduri has said publicly that “we are very much committed to our roadmap” and that there will be “more updates from us this quarter” and “four new product lines by the end of the year.”

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