The End of Adobe Flash and the Height of the War Over Privacy

Apple took a stand against Adobe Flash ten years ago, and it's taking a stand against tracking now.
Marcia Wendorf
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The new year is ushering in changes to Adobe's Flash Player and companies' ability to track your web browsing. Beginning on January 12, 2021, Adobe will block Flash content from running in Flash Player, which means that websites that rely on Flash will no longer work. In addition, Apple is instituting changes to the way websites track visitors and access their private information.

On December 31, 2020, Adobe ended support for its Flash Player, and starting on January 1, 2021, Flash will be completely removed from all browsers via software updates. Adobe strongly recommends that users immediately uninstall Flash Player on their computers in order to protect themselves.

A spaghetti-ball piece of technology

Adobe's Flash has long had a contentious relationship with Apple. Flash was never supported on Apple's iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch devices, and as of 2010, Flash was no longer pre-installed on Apple's Mac computers. The reason for this was Apple CEO Steve Jobs' intense hatred of Flash.

In his famous biography of Jobs entitled, Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, writer Walter Isaacson quoted Jobs as saying of Flash: "Flash is a spaghetti-ball piece of technology that has lousy performance and really bad security problems." Jobs has also been quoted as calling Flash, "buggy, a battery hog and a product created by lazy developers." 

Adobe fired back with ads that said, "We love Apple … What we don’t love is anybody taking away your freedom to choose what you create, how you create it, and what you experience on the Web." However, in July 2017, Adobe conceded defeat and announced that it would cease development of Flash.

Now, Apple, under CEO Tim Cook, is taking another controversial stand, this time about privacy, and it's Facebook that is squarely in Apple's sights.

The search for a refrigerator

To understand this latest skirmish, you need to know a bit about my refrigerator: it's homely, and it doesn't keep things that cold. I've been all over the web on a hunt for a new fridge, everywhere from the websites of big box retailers to ads on local Facebook groups. Then, this past Saturday, I went to a general news site, and what should I see — a banner ad showing refrigerators.

One might think that it was the Universe guiding me to that overpriced French door fridge, but in reality, it was something else — something called tracking. Trackers are embedded on websites, and they can collect your location, your IP address, browser characteristics, personal data, web browsing history, and even your keystrokes.

The three main methods websites use to track you are cookies, beacons, and fingerprinting. Cookies are small files that are stored within your browser and contain your custom settings, preferences, and log-in information. While cookies add convenience, they also expose your personal data.

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Tracking beacons are small, transparent images, often no bigger than 1 pixel by 1 pixel, that load onto your computer when you open a web page or an email. Beacons provide information about how many times visitors load certain web pages, and they also provide advertisers with data on how many impressions their ads have gotten.

Fingerprinting checks your browser configurations and settings in order to identify you. It identifies elements such as your browser version, monitor size and resolution, and operating system. No matter the type of tracker, once it identifies you, it assembles all the information it has collected about you into a data profile that companies can use to present you with targeted advertising, which is how an ad for refrigerators popped up on my screen.

Apple defines tracking as, "the act of linking user or device data collected from your app with user or device data collected from other companies' apps, websites, or offline properties for targeted advertising or advertising measurement purposes. Tracking also refers to sharing user or device data with data brokers." Besides Google, which uses a host of trackers as part of its analytics, the biggest users of trackers are Facebook, DoubleClick, YouTube, and Twitter. 

In November 2020, Apple notified app developers that they would need to specify privacy details for their apps on all Apple platforms, including iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS. Apple would then display those details in a "nutrition label" that would appear alongside the app's listing on Apple's App Store.

Apple "nutrition label" Source: Apple

The information included on the "nutrition label" must include what data the app collects, whether this data links to the user and whether it can be used to track the user. Types of data collected by an app include location data and browsing history, data linked to you is any data that can be used to identify you.

iOS 14

Apple rolled out its new operating system, iOS 14, on December 14, 2020, and it includes a new App Tracking Transparency feature that will allow users to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be tracked.

When users open a new app for the first time, they will see a pop-up message that asks for permission for the app to track them, and, according to Apple, it is on this pop-up that companies, such as Facebook, can explain to users why they should enable tracking.

iOS 14 also kills off a unique identifier that each Apple device has, called an Identification for Advertisers (IDFA) code. It is this code that advertisers use to track users across apps and websites, recording the websites you visit, your interests, where you shop, and even where you want to shop.

On December 16, 2020, Apple said in a statement to 9To5Mac "We believe that this is a simple matter of standing up for our users. Users should know when their data is being collected and shared across other apps and websites — and they should have the choice to allow that or not. App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14 does not require Facebook to change its approach to tracking users and creating targeted advertising, it simply requires they give users a choice."

While Facebook has announced that it will not collect this data on its own apps, Apple's change will have a big impact on the Facebook Audience Network which uses Facebook data to target ads on other publishers' websites and apps.

Facebook has claimed that it will be "devastating to small businesses" that rely on its ad network, and Facebook has set up a "Speak Up for Small Business" website. On December 16, 2020, Facebook placed full-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal decrying Apple's privacy change.

The newspaper ad stated, "We disagree with Apple's approach and solution, yet we have no choice but to show Apple's prompt ... If we don't, they will block Facebook from the App Store, which would only further harm the people and businesses that rely on our services. We cannot take this risk on behalf of the millions of businesses who use our platform to grow."

Back in November 2020, Apple had defended its privacy policy change in letters to several human rights organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The letter read in part: [Facebook and others] " ... use detailed data about online browsing activity to target ads. Facebook executives have made clear their intent is to collect as much data as possible across both first and third party products to develop and monetize detailed profiles of their users, and this disregard for user privacy continues to expand to include more of their products."

Because Apple wasn't making the changes until the new year, the human rights organizations were concerned that tracking might be used for ill purposes during the November 2020 presidential election, saying, "This means that these privacy protections will not be available during the critical weeks leading up to and following the 2020 U.S. elections, when people’s data can be used to target them with personalized political ads."

Like two sumo wrestlers

Currently, Apple and Facebook are facing off like two sumo wrestlers. Facebook has alleged that Apple is using its size to block competitors' advertising businesses, saying, "They are using their dominant market position to self-preference their own data collection while making it nearly impossible for their competitors to use the same data." For good measure, Facebook added, "They claim it's about privacy, but it's about profit."

In 2010, Apple took a controversial stand against Flash, and a decade later it's taking a similarly controversial and courageous stand against tracking. The ramifications of this move should play out over the coming year. Apple's attempt to give users the ability to control tracking will limit the ability of third parties to access user's private data, and it will also shift power towards users and away from advertisers who want to influence purchasing behavior. 

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