Newswise — Fresh research from the School of Management at the University of Bath indicates that there is a prevalent misapprehension concerning the privacy and security capabilities intended to grant more authority to consumers with respect to the dissemination of their data via smartphone applications.

As per the study's findings, 43% of participants utilizing mobile phones displayed bewilderment or lack of clarity regarding the implications of app tracking. Frequently, individuals misunderstood the fundamental goal of tracking, assuming it to be an innate aspect of the application's operation or to enhance user satisfaction.

App tracking is used by companies to deliver targeted advertising to smartphone users. 

Upon launching an app, iPhone users are prompted with a pop-up inquiring if they permit the app's developer to track their actions across other apps. They may opt for either 'Ask App Not to Track' or 'Allow,' which Apple's App Tracking Transparency framework introduced in April 2021. In contrast, Android users must navigate to their phone settings to provide tracking authorization.

In the event that individuals choose to opt-out of tracking, their engagement with apps and websites on their device becomes untraceable by the respective company, and the data becomes unusable for targeted advertising or transmission to data brokers.

The prevalent misconception (24%) among participants was that tracking pertains to divulging the physical location of the device instead of monitoring the utilization of apps and websites. Several individuals assumed that they had to permit tracking for food delivery and pickup services like Deliveroo or health and fitness apps since they believed that their location was an indispensable aspect of the app's operation.

Although slightly over half of the participants (51%) expressed apprehension regarding privacy or security, encompassing the safety of their data after it had been amassed, the study demonstrated no correlation between their anxiety regarding privacy in their daily lives and a diminished rate of tracking consent.

Hannah Hutton, a postgraduate researcher from the School of Management at the University of Bath, commented, "We anticipated that individuals who prioritize safeguarding their privacy would allow fewer apps to track their data, but our findings suggest otherwise. The prevalent misunderstandings surrounding app tracking were substantial. People often assumed that allowing tracking was essential for the app's optimal operation."

Hutton further added, "The perplexity is partly attributable to the ambiguity in the phrasing utilized by companies in the tracking prompts, which can be effortlessly misconstrued. For instance, when ASOS stated, 'We'll use your data to give you a more personalized ASOS experience and to make our app even more amazing,' it's not astonishing that people believed they were selecting additional features as opposed to simply more pertinent advertisements."

Although the main body of the prompt for obtaining app tracking consent is standardized, app developers can add a sentence providing an explanation for requesting tracking permission. This can create an opportunity for inaccurate or deceptive information, whether deliberately or unintentionally.

Additional misunderstandings included presumptions that granting permission for sharing health-related data (e.g., period tracking apps) would result in the sharing of confidential information, or that withholding tracking permission would eliminate advertisements from the app.

The research paper, "Exploring User Motivations Behind iOS App Tracking Transparency Decisions," is available in the proceedings of The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems ( The study was also presented at the CHI23 conference held in Hamburg, Germany from April 23 to 28. It is believed to be the initial academic examination of how people determine their decisions concerning tracking requests.

The researchers gathered information on the tracking choices of 312 participants (aged 18 to 75) and examined the justifications for accepting or declining tracking requests for a variety of applications, such as social media, shopping, health, and food delivery.

David Ellis, co-author and Professor of Behavioural Science, commented, "This research highlights once again how the vast majority of consumers are unaware of how their digital data is being utilized. Every day, millions of people provide information to tech companies, and while some of this data is necessary for these services to function properly, other data enables these firms to generate revenue through targeted advertising. For instance, Meta (formerly Facebook) predicted a $10 billion loss due to people refusing tracking."

Professor David Ellis also stated, "Even though individuals are now accustomed to the advantages of using PIN numbers and facial recognition to secure their devices, more efforts are required to assist people in making informed judgments about how their data is utilized in the digital age."

Exploring User Motivations Behind iOS App Tracking Transparency Decisions is published in the proceedings of The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems

Journal Link: The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems