WTF is Apple’s latest anti-tracking update?

This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

Apple has released another version of its anti-tracking update, this time affecting first-party as well as third-party data cookies.

The platform’s first Intelligent Tracking Prevention, released in 2017, was intended to protect user privacy by restricting the ability of ad tech companies to track people around the web. A week ago, Apple announced plans to launch the next version ITP 2.1, still currently in test mode. Expectations are that it will be fully announced later this month.

So far, talk and buzz around the update has been restricted to web analytics and developer circles, but it’s worth publishers’ and marketers’ attention.

Like all jargon-riddled technology updates, it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees. Here’s a primer.

So, WTF is Apple ITP?
ITP stands for Intelligent Tracking Prevention and is Apple’s attempt to crack down on ad tracking through its browser Safari. The first version blocked the tracking of third-party cookies via Safari browsers, which was a headache for ad tech companies, marketers and publishers reliant on third-party data that advertisers depend on to target niche audiences at scale.

How is the newest update ITP 2.1 different from ITP 2.0?
In a nutshell, 2.0 related to third-party cookies, whereas 2.1 also relates to first-party cookies. First-party cookies are generally regarded as the more benign type of cookie. They’re typically used by publishers to monitor how people are using their websites, and for other site analytics purposes. Unlike third-party cookies, which are used for advertising purposes like building profiles of potential customers and retargeting. Any cookies used for regular web analytics should be ok, it’s those that are used for cross-site tracking that will be restricted.

So why update it?
Blame ad tech vendors. When Apple announced the initial ITP it caused a wave of anxiety among ad tech vendors that rely on third-party cookie tracking and revenues were affected. But gradually companies adapted and a range of workarounds were created to help circumvent the issues. One such workaround was to store third-party cookies as first-party cookies. To close those loopholes, Apple has developed 2.1 to counter those workarounds.“It’s [ITP 2.1] become something of an arms race between the Apple webkit Safari developers and ad tech firms,” said Sam Vining, head of data and consultancy at iCrossing. “It [ITP 2.1] was a response to the response [to ITP 2.0.].”

How does 2.1 block the workarounds?
It reduced the usefulness of the solutions by targeting the accessibility and longevity of first-party cookies. For instance, now persistent first-party cookies which are used to track visitor behavior on-site, can only be stored for seven days. The 2.1 update doesn’t relate to session cookies, which already disappear after 24 hours after a person has visited a website.

Are there any unintended consequences?
Yes. One could be a duplication of unique users, caused by the fact that website owners may count site visitors who return after seven days as two different customers when in reality they’re the same person. “Previously, a Google Analytics cookie would, in theory, last for two years; it will now be deleted by Safari after seven days,” added Vining. “That could drastically inflate the number of unique visitors that brands and advertisers see in their figures.”

Marketers must adjust to the new reality in which certain audience data is now closed to them. “The fundamental challenge facing marketers with this latest release is visibility into how their digital marketing is performing, said Ryan Storrar, svp and head of media activation for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Essence. “ITP 2.1 is the latest chapter in this story. There are steps that can be taken to limit the impact in the short-term, but, more broadly, a post-cookie world is clearly on the horizon and marketers need to get ready.”

How big of a problem is it?
It affects everyone in the ad tech ecosystem, which means vendors, marketers and publishers. In a way, that makes it less of a concern because everyone has to deal with the same challenge, which puts everyone on a level playing field. It’s important also to remember that it’s only Safari browsers that are blocking the cookies (although Firefox browser also has a version of its own.) But it’s still a large proportion. Approximately 38 percent of 400 million monthly unique users in the U.K. come to publisher sites via Safari browsers and 7 percent from Firefox, according to data from data management platform Permutive. That means approximately 45 percent of those unique users are hidden to the publishers, because they can’t use cookies to determine who that user is, in order to retarget them. “It doesn’t feel like it’s a hair-on-fire problem to publishers, but it should be,” said Amit Kotecha, marketing director of Permutive.

Is more coming?
Likely. Like most things in digital, workarounds will be found for the current update, and so more iterations will follow. “Given Apple’s aggressive attitude towards this issue, it seems like the idea of persistent cookies in Safari, for cross-site tracking purposes, will eventually be a thing of the past,” said Ratko Vidakovic, founder of ad tech consultancy AdProfs.

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