Helping ckbk Remove Ad Tracking
In this anonymous age of scale and target audience and eyeballs, it still pays to get personal. Last month, I received email from Matthew Cockerill, who introduced himself in a manner similar to many TidBITS readers writing to me for the first time.
As someone who started following TidBITS 30 years ago as a Mac-using PhD student in the early 90s, it was very cool to see one of your latest pieces beginning: “I love cookbooks” 🙂
Matt was referring to “Use Live Text to Digitize Your Cookbooks” (5 January 2023), and he wanted to tell me about his service ckbk, which provides the full text of roughly 700 cookbooks to subscribers. I looped Jeff Carlson, who wrote “Use the Web to Cook Your Books” (17 March 2022) for us, into the conversation, and if all goes well, we’ll have another article on the topic in a month or so. (A quick search of my email also revealed that Matt and I were both on a publishing world mailing list, where I learned that, after getting his PhD in molecular biology, he co-founded open-access science publisher BioMed Central and has gone on to consult on design and innovation.)
But that’s not what I wanted to write about today. After Matt reached out, I downloaded the ckbk app to my iPhone and was dismayed to discover that this compelling-sounding service from someone I’d probably enjoy a great deal in person seemingly wanted to track me.
Whenever I see that dialog, I immediately become suspicious of the company and its product, and I always tap Ask App Not to Track while simultaneously muttering obscenities under my breath. I then take a screenshot of the app so I can easily document which companies have dubious business models and troubling ethics with a search for the image text “Ask App Not to Track” in Photos. (The full list is in Settings > Privacy & Security >Tracking.)
I replied to Matt’s message with questions about the service and noted my disappointment in the app asking to track me. He replied:
When it comes to the fact that the app asks to “track”—I hear where you are coming from but it’s not as sinister as it sounds… Unless “tracking” is turned on, the app and app store can’t even offer the most basic information—there’s no way to know which of our promotional spending or partnerships have brought users to the ckbk app, and which have been a complete waste of money, for example. So in order to have some basic measure of the effectiveness of our marketing it seems we have no choice but to ask to track. It’s frustrating that there’s no distinction made by Apple between this and wider sorts of 3rd party tracking.
That somewhat mollified me. Not enough to allow full-fledged tracking, but I understand the need to match click-throughs from ads or partnerships to actions. We did that all the time with Take Control Books to learn where a customer had come from, though nothing else about them. But Matt’s next email made me feel even better:
Actually, thanks for the nudge on this—I’ve been doing some more digging and it turns out this is a rapidly moving space, and there are some new privacy-preserving ways that we can now track downloads which don’t necessarily require us to ask for tracking or for users to opt in. So we are going to get onto the case and switch things around so that we no longer need to prompt new users with the offputting “tracking” request…
Two weeks later, it was done:
Just wanted to let you know, we’ve taken your feedback on board, and have been able to eliminate “tracking” from the ckbk app. (Actually we already weren’t tracking, but we needed to update the metadata and remove certain libraries which cause tracking to be flagged.)
It turns out this was a *lot* more difficult than expected, as there seems to be a significant App Store bug which means that there is a Catch-22 and Apple will reject an app which no longer tracks because of ‘non matching metadata’ and there’s no way to make it match until your new app is live. Creating that Catch-22. The only way past it being an appeal to the App Store. But we managed it…
There’s the testament to making personal connections. Matt’s entirely appropriate introduction means we’re likely to write about ckbk, and my politely worded disappointment about tracking resulted in ckbk refactoring the app to remove the dialog, which will create a better experience for new ckbk users, possibly including TidBITS readers. Everyone wins.
I also learned that Apple’s App Tracking Transparency might be a bit more of a blunt instrument than I had previously thought. As you saw in the screenshot above, I still use a fair number of apps that have asked to track me, and perhaps they aren’t as evil as I had believed. But I’m still not going to give them permission. And don’t get me started about the likes of Facebook and Instagram, which I won’t let anywhere near my iPhone.
Have you considered just disabling tracking all together, or are you using this more as a means to track the trackers?
Precisely! I let apps ask if they can track me rather than just denying it so I can see how prevalent it is and which companies are engaging in it.
Is your conclusion anything other than “everybody everywhere all the time”?
That’s what it seems like to me. Even my own personal blog tracks me because it’s hosted by Google’s blogger.com / blogspot.com service.
Yes, actually. There are quite a few apps that ask to track, but it’s only a small percentage of all those that I have.
A couple of years ago I started using some tracking blocking features in Firefox (Mac, not iOS) and soon ran into problems getting access to many web sites by things like unsolvable Captchas. I did some digging around and found that tracking results are being widely used in security systems, so if they don’t have any tracking data for you, you are considered a risk and likely to be blocked. At that point, I decided that blocking all or most tracking could cause more trouble than it was worth, although I do block some tracking, particularly location when not necessary (e.g. by banks).
I don’t use a smartphone, so I don’t know what’s going on with apps, but from what has been described so far, it looks lime many are asking for much more information than they need. I wonder how much they are used in security systems.
Join the discussion in the TidBITS Discourse forum