Apple To Mask IP Addresses, Let Users Block Email Tracking Pixels

Apple on Monday unveiled sweeping new privacy settings, including one that will obscure Safari users' IP addresses, and one that will let people who use its email app block tracking pixels.

Tracking pixels, which are embedded in images and typically invisible to users, allow email senders to obtain analytics data about recipients -- including whether they've opened the messages and, when combined with IP addresses, their locations. Apple's new "mail privacy protection" setting, slated for inclusion in iOS 15, will block those pixels and also hide recipients' IP addresses. 

Privacy advocates have long raised concerns about the use of tracking pixels. Earlier this year, the email provider Hey said two-thirds of emails sent to users on its system contained tracking pixels -- reportedly characterized by Hey founder David Heinemeier Hansson as a "grotesque invasion of privacy."



The Safari browser has long blocked third-party tracking cookies by default. The decision to also mask Safari users' IP addresses aims to hinder ad-tech companies from replacing cookie-based tracking with a system that tracks users based on their IP addresses.

Apple has also unveiled a new “app privacy report,” which will reveal the names of ad-tech companies and other third parties that receive data from apps. The report will also tell users  when their location data, cameras and microphones are accessed by apps.

News of the privacy features, unveiled by Apple at its developers' conference, comes around six weeks after the company began requiring app developers to seek iPhone and iPad users' permission before tracking them across apps. 

Apple's move comes as Google is preparing to block ad-tech companies from setting cookies in the Chrome browser -- which will make it more difficult for ad-tech companies to track Chrome users. Google also plans to stop transmitting mobile ad identifiers to app developers, when Android users opt out of ad personalization. 

Jules Polonetsky, CEO of the think tank Future of Privacy Forum, suggested Monday that Apple's new features, combined with other recent developments, could spur ad companies to shift digital marketing techniques.

“With these changes and the changes Google is making, plus the advances in global regulation and state laws, marketers should see the writing on the wall for current tracking systems,” he says. “The future is about device processing, sophisticated de-identification techniques, modeling using opt-in panels that can provide insights into audiences, context and other tools that will support advertising.”

Apple also said Monday it's releasing a new virtual private network, Private Relay, for people who use the paid iCloud+ service. Private Relay aims to prevent any companies, including internet service providers, from tracking consumers' activity across the web.

iCloud+ will also offer “Hide My Email,” which lets people create one-time addresses.

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