Along with macOS High Sierra, Apple will also release a new version of its web browser, Safari. What makes this update particularly interesting is a new feature called Intelligent Tracking Prevention, which uses machine learning to prevent cookies from tracking user activity and reduces cross-site tracking by further limiting cookies and other website data. It’s an important step toward protecting user privacy, which Apple is clearly trying to achieve – especially when compared to Facebook, Amazon and Google – but it is still not enough. Intelligent Tracking Prevention cannot actually block tracking, since it is instead addressing a problem from 2008 and not the same issue we face nowadays. It is a welcome addition to Safari and an effort to protect privacy, but it would be naive to think this technology will completely stop online tracking.
How Intelligent Tracking Prevention Works
In a blog post by WebKit security engineer John Wilander, Apple explains how Intelligent Tracking Prevention works. Apple is taking its default setting of blocking third party cookies a step further by blocking them from recording cross-site browsing data, too.
Intelligent Tracking Prevention collects “statistics on resource loads, as well as user interactions such as taps, clicks and text entries”, and groups the information by top privately controlled domains. It uses machine learning to determine which top privately controlled domains can track the user across sites. The new policy leaves a 24-hour window in which cookies may remain available for third party use. This allows for “Sign in with my X account on Y” login scenarios, Wilander writes.
After that one-day window, cookies will be partitioned where they get unique, isolated storage per privately controlled domain so that users can stay logged in even if they visit that site only occasionally. The use of the cookie for cross-site tracking will be prohibited, though. After 30 days, the cookie is then purged and Apple will continue to purge it if it attempts to collect new user data.
Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention puts companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google at an advantage since they have ‘products’ users access on a daily basis, so the new policy actually helps them. In other words, this change isn’t that huge and most users will continue to be tracked by these companies while using Safari since chances are high that they’ll regularly log into these sites.
The Impact of Intelligent Tracking Prevention
To fully understand the impact of the new Safari feature, it has to be put into context. First, Apple controls only a minor segment (5.52%) of the global desktop browser market according to StatCounter (August data). That compares to Chrome’s market share of 63.58%.
There is a slight difference to consider, however, when looking at the mobile version of Safari and its global market share: 21.2% compared to Chrome’s 47.25%. In the U.S. alone, however, Apple clearly dominates with 54.25% compared to Chrome’s 35.73%, based on the latest available data.
In other words, Intelligent Tracking Prevention’s reach is quite small globally. Another important aspect to keep in mind is that a lot has happened since 2009 when the European ePrivacy Directive (2002/58/EC) outlawed the use of third party tracking without consent. Since then those exploiting the privacy of internet users have come up with various solutions to maintain this possibility, such as server-side tracking.
It’s important to know that little can be done at a browser or device level to prevent user tracking with server-based technologies. This is due to how it works: when you send a request to a server, the server needs to know where to send the answer, and in this case this is your IP address, in addition to further information such as your web browser and operating system. If your IP address is fixed, then the identification is mostly accurate.
What Measures to Take to Protect Your Privacy
In light of this, the first step we recommend taking to further strengthen your safety net and privacy is to sign up for a VPN service. This will hide your real IP address and give you a new one based on the secure server you connect to, so even if you are using Safari, your identity is shielded.
But that won’t protect you from being tracked by Facebook, Amazon or Google, so we recommend signing out from those services while browsing the web. If you have to log in, use Private Browsing mode since this won’t keep you logged in after you close the browser. Ad blockers would be another essential tool to enjoy a clean website (such as an add-on that replaces ads with pictures of cats for feline fans). For more detailed information on how to browse the web using Safari and a VPN service, head over to our VPN for Mac guide and follow the steps detailed within.
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