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8/23/2011
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Apple: Stop Tracking iOS Users By Device IDs

Documentation changes to the iOS 5 beta tell developers to track users via their own applications, not the serial number associated with each device.

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Apple has instructed third-party developers to cease tracking iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch users via the unique serial number associated with each one of its hardware devices. Widespread use of the tracking technique had raised privacy concerns and triggered multiple lawsuits against Apple.

In particular, new language in the documentation for iOS 5--the forthcoming version of Apple's mobile OS--informs developers that tracking via the unique device identifier (UDID) has become deprecated. That's developer-speak for "we no longer encourage you to use this feature."

"Instead, create a unique identifier specific to your app," according to Apple's documentation. As that suggests, applications will still be able to track users. But deprecating UDID would make it more difficult for businesses that track user behavior online, such as advertising firms, to track a single person's behavior across different applications. Furthermore, since Apple vets all applications--via its AppStore "walled garden" model--it will be able to enforce UDID restrictions.

Does Apple's restriction on the use of UDID by third-party developers mean that Apple itself will cease using UDID? Apple wasn't immediately available to respond to that question.

Research suggests that use of UDID for tracking individual Apple iOS device users is widespread. According to a 2010 study, for example, 68% of tested iPhone apps, when they launched, shared a device's UDID with a server--connected to the application developer, or with an advertising network--while 18% returned unknown, encrypted data back to a server.

Apple has seen multiple lawsuits arise from its use of UDID. For example, the company was sued in a January class action lawsuit for transmitting data to third parties that could be used to track device users without their consent, allegedly in violation of state and federal privacy laws.

According to the related complaint, "Apple allows the UDID to be displayed to application developers, and allows the downloaded applications access to the user's browsing history each time the user clicks on an advertisement or application appearing on their mobile device." Furthermore, noted the complaint, users can't block the use of UDID by iOS applications.

Apple's iOS documentation change was reported by TechCrunch Friday, which obtained a copy of Apple's developer documentation, which is only available to registered developers.

In discussions there, developers reacted in various ways, with some noting that after a feature becomes deprecated, it typically doesn't disappear for at least a few more versions of an OS. Others, however, lamented that without UDID it would be more difficult to track users who installed their applications on multiple devices, perhaps in violation of licensing agreements. Some, however, noted that UDID wasn't the only way to track a device, and acknowledged that UDID had been widely abused as a user-tracking technique.

Information about iOS 5, which has been in beta since June, has been trickling out, most notably via developers sharing their questions and comments via online forums. Apple has been releasing a new build of the beta OS about every two weeks. The final, production version, is due out this fall.

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