Apple's IDFA Crackdown Reverberates Through Mobile Ad Ecosystem

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AppleMany app developers and ad tech vendors received a jolt recently when Apple began rejecting some apps that retrieve a user’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) without serving an ad.

Apple’s decision was especially surprising, since the device manufacturer had allowed that activity for nearly two years. Regardless of Apple’s motivations for this change (the company did not respond to requests for comment), ad tech companies are scrambling to come up with alternative solutions.

“The IDFA is the lifeblood of the app ecosystem and it is hard to see Apple really enforcing this,” said Duncan McCall, CEO of PlaceIQ, an analytics firm that offers location-based ad retargeting services that uses data from the IDFA. “Advertisers have to understand how an app is doing and if you remove the IDFA, the industry will have to find other ways to do that.”

The removal of a core conversion tracking mechanism for any advertiser that doesn't serve ads directly strips away an important attribution signal for app developers. Were Apple's rules to be applied broadly, for example, a popular app such as Evernote — which has no ads — wouldn't be able to accurately measure which conversions came through Facebook and which through Flurry. In other words, Apple would appear to have stripped away — for some advertisers — one of the key value propositions of the IDFA.

Others, like Lauren Moores, VP of analytics at Dstillery, a firm that helps marketers find custom audiences, are less worried, saying that at the end of the day, losing access to IDFA is only “a break in the chain.”

“The IDFA does not provide a holistic solution. As an industry, we still haven’t found the best solution for finding the same person across devices,” Moores said. She agreed with McCall, however, that advertisers need alternatives to IDFA. “This is also a reminder that we as an industry cannot be dependent on a single data source, since you don’t know where the fallout will be.”

One of the alternative solutions, McCall noted, is using fingerprinting solutions to key in on identifiers that exist either temporarily on a device or remain as persistent identifiers. The accuracy rate of fingerprinting technologies vary by vendor, though, and they are considered less privacy-friendly than the IDFA.

Ad tech vendors are also cobbling together other strategies that work around the IDFA.

For example, Mixpanel, a mobile and Web-based analytics platform, explained in a blog post that it previously used the IDFA as a default identifier for app users, but has since released an update that “intelligently” chooses alternative identifiers, such as the IdentifierforVendor (IFV), an identifier released by Apple so app developers can track users who have installed their apps. However, this identifier  cannot be accessed by third-party companies, making it less effective for advertising purposes.

Although many industry insiders were surprised and angry at Apple’s decision, others, like James Lamberti, VP and general manager at AdTruth, said restrictions on IDFA shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Apple states in its iOS Developer Program License Agreement that IDFA is to be used “only for the purpose of serving advertising,” even though many businesses like ad targeting firms, ad networks and attribution vendors use IDFA without serving ads.

“The industry is a little delusional in how they think Apple views us,” Lamberti said. “Out of the $250 billion or so that Apple is [projected] to earn next year, hardly any of it relies on the IDFA.”

Apple, Lamberti continued, “is clearly motivated to deprecate any form of deterministic ID. Look at how third-party cookies didn’t work on Safari. … There’s also the UDID getting deprecated, then the MAC address and now IDFA being ratcheted back in what is a continuation of something we’ve seen over the past couple of years.”

The UDID and the MAC address were unique identifiers pre-dating IDFA that advertisers initially used as ad-tracking mechanisms. IDFA, launched two years ago, was designed to replace the UDID and the MAC address, which were persistent identifiers, meaning users could not opt out of being tracked by them. The IDFA included an opt-out option.

But just because a user opts out of being tracked doesn’t mean app developers are compelled to listen, said Slaven Radic, CEO of the app marketing firm Tapstream, which first reported the app rejections.

“Users can disable the IDFA," Radic said, "but the app can ignore that request and we know for a fact that few apps respected it [the requests], so it was just a matter of time before Apple probably noticed that the IDFA was being overused.”

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