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Few Apple Users Choosing to Opt In to Allow Apps to Track Their Online Activity

In the News

Late in April, Apple released iOS 14.5, the current version of the iOS mobile operating system developed for the company’s iPhone and iPod Touch lines. This update now incorporates an App Tracking Transparency (ATT) policy, which requires that apps request users’ permission before tracking their online activities or collecting and sharing data between apps. 

Those who use these Apple products now have more power to control who has access to their personal and private information, such as what apps they download; their search and purchase history; what posts they create, click on, react to and comment on; their location, etc. Instead of having to opt OUT of tracking, users now have to explicitly opt IN, giving apps permission to share their Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) with other apps.

Users of the iOS 14.5 technology can also turn the “Allow Apps to Request to Track” selection off in their settings, which automatically restricts IDFA data access and prevents apps from asking permission to track.

According to Verizon Media-owned Flurry Analytics, which reportedly is used in more than one million mobile apps, U.S. users agree to be tracked only four percent of the time, while globally, the opt in rate is 11-12 percent.

The ramifications for the $189 billion worldwide mobile advertising industry are huge, since app developers and marketers who base their business model on the use of targeted mobile ads stand to lose substantial revenue. 

Apple states that its ATT policy is a user privacy tool, but critics say it discourages user participation and will hurt businesses that rely on targeted ads. Meanwhile, Apple is promoting its own set of tools (including the SKAdNetwork and Privacy Click Measurement) for tracking the behavior of current and potential customers, which the company touts as more secure and protective of users’ privacy because they gather data without directly identifying users. 

“Targeted ads” may be something of a misnomer; it might be more correct to say that marketers create ads for “targeted audiences.” “Targeted ads” may feel less threatening and predatory than “targeting people.” But does the use of hunting lingo that seems to put bull’s-eyes on the backs of people reduce them to prey or commodities? Are the identities and personal preferences of users consequential only insofar as they can be leveraged to produce a profit for the highest bidder? What is the worth of a human being?

Comedian Trevor Noah observed that advertisers have always been able to market products and services to consumers with non-targeted ads. But it is more profitable to the marketers if they can focus their messaging on people who are most likely to be interested in what they have to offer.

Some people prefer targeted ads because they end up wasting less time by seeing fewer ads for things they are uninterested in or have no use for, and a higher percentage of ads for things pertinent to their lives. That’s how free markets are supposed to work: no one profits unless both sides profit.

More on this story can be found at these links:

Daily iOS 14.5 Opt-in Rate. Flurry
96% of U.S. Users Opt Out of App Tracking in iOS 14.5, Analytics Find. ARS Technica
Only 4% of iOS Users in the U.S. Are Opting In to Ad Tracking, Report Says. Apple Insider
Stop Cross-app Tracking on iOS. Privacy International

Applying the News Story 

We may be unnerved by the thought of someone tracking us, whether that someone is human or divine, benevolent or malevolent. There are many kinds of trackers with various motives in the world: bounty hunters; fugitive slave catchers; stalkers; serial killers; spies; storm troopers; detectives; search-and-rescue team members; GPS tracking devices for active toddlers, children with special needs or seniors with dementia; bloodhounds and other canine trackers; ski patrol members after an avalanche; and animal lovers looking for a lost or stolen animal. How we feel about someone tracking us will likely depend on how we perceive their intentions. 

Our faith teaches us that God knows us, hears us, follows us, cares for us. But we also understand that God keeps track of our behavior and holds us accountable for our choices and actions. So we may have mixed feelings about God the Tracker of human beings.

From the beginning of human history, humans have tried to hide from the presence of God after rebelling against God’s authority, for fear of punishment (Genesis 3:8-13). Other examples of people who tried to hide their misdeeds, with tragic consequences, include Achan the thief (Joshua 7:1-26) and Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11).

The psalmist wrote that “God looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God” (Psalm 53:2). He prays, “O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you” (Psalm 69:5).

But while God is fully aware of our sins, God also fully knows our frailty and pain, as the psalmist acknowledges in his statement, “O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you” (Psalm 38:9).

The prophet Isaiah asks, “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” (Isaiah 40:27). How presumptuous it is for people to imagine that it is possible to hide from the all-seeing eye of an omnipresent, omniscient God!

Let’s consider the implications of God’s thorough knowledge of our hidden thoughts. 

The Big Questions

1. Do people object to the very idea of being tracked, no matter who is doing the tracking, or for what purpose? Or does the identity and motivation of the tracker make a difference? Explain.

2. Are there ways we can tell that God tracks us? If so, how can we tell?

3. Does it comfort you, unsettle you, or scare you, to think about God’s absolute knowledge of your every thought, desire and deed? 

4. If you could opt out of God tracking you, would you want to? Why or why not?

5. Does the awareness of God’s ability to track your every move change your behavior, and if so, how? If not, why not? 

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

1 Timothy 5:24-25
The sins of some people are conspicuous and precede them to judgment, while the sins of others follow them there. So also good works are conspicuous; and even when they are not, they cannot remain hidden. (No context needed.)
Ecclesiastes 12:14
For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (For context, read 12:13-14.)

While the Bible tells us that there is nothing hidden from God, some things are hidden from humans. That is one reason that justice on earth will never be perfect. 

Paul seems to be saying that whether people commit sins or do good works in public or in private, openly or secretly, all will be revealed at the Last Judgment.

Jesus also affirmed that “nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light” (Luke 8:16-17; see also Luke 12:1-3).

And the author of the book of Hebrews tells us that before God, “no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:13).

Revelation 20:11-15 provides John’s vision of the Last Judgment, when “books were opened” containing the records of the deeds of the dead, which provide the basis for how people were to be judged. John also mentions “the book of life,” the source of hope, for without the book of life, no one could stand before the judgment seat of God.

Questions: Think of a time someone was not punished for an egregious crime or sin committed. Think of a time someone was not appropriately rewarded for good works done. How would revealing hidden sins as well as good works done in secret begin to rectify any imbalance on the scales of justice?

1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God. (No context needed.)

Paul sometimes came under scrutiny and condemnation. On more than one occasion, he had to explain why he was qualified as an apostle who brought the authentic message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But here, he throws himself on the mercy of God’s court. He trusts God, more than any human court and more than himself, to reveal the truth, to reveal hidden motives of the heart, and to judge him truthfully and fairly. He fully expects that at the Last Judgment, there will not only be condemnation of sin, but commendation from God. 

In 1 John 3:19-22, the writer says that even when our hearts condemn us, “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”

Questions: As you look back over your life, what, if anything, are you likely to condemn yourself for? What, if anything, do you think might merit commendation? Would you rather judge yourself, have other people judge you, or leave judgment up to God? Explain your answer.

Why should we defer judging ourselves and others before the Lord comes? What are the implications of this policy for our interpersonal relations?

Psalm 139:1, 7-10
O LORD, you have searched me and known me. … 
Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast. (For context, read 139:1-16.)

We might call Psalm 139 the Psalm of God the Tracker, who is intimately interested in human beings. As the Creator, who saw our unformed substance and caused us to develop in the darkness of our mothers’ wombs, our bodies were never hidden from God, and he saw how every day of our lives would unfold, even before we were born (vv. 13-16). If God’s knowledge of us was that complete before our birth, when we were covered by darkness, there is no reason to believe that God’s knowledge of us would diminish after our birth, after we had seen the light of day (vv. 11-12).

While God already knows us completely, and doesn’t really need to study us to compile more data about us, to search us in order to know us better, or to improve on his knowledge of us, the language of the psalmist suggests that God’s interest in us is active and ongoing (v. 1). 

So in Genesis 2:19, we read that God brought Adam the animals and birds “to see what he would call them.” That doesn’t mean that God had to wait to discover what Adam thought. God’s knowledge of Adam was already perfect. But the expression reveals a God who is engaged with Adam, who enjoys spending time with the man he created, who delights in watching his creation grow and is invested in the relationship. 

God watches our every movement, knows what we are thinking, and could finish our sentences before we have even started to speak (vv. 2-6). God doesn’t need to ask for our location, since there is nowhere in heaven, earth or hell, where we might go, where he is not present (vv. 7-10). But while God’s omniscience amazes the psalmist (vv. 6, 17-18), the psalmist is comforted by the thought that wherever he goes, God will lead him by the hand and keep him safe in his hand (v. 10).

Questions: When, if ever, have you tried to flee from God’s presence? What, if anything, did you discover on that occasion?

Luke 8:47-48
When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before [Jesus], she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” (For context, read 8:43-48.)

A woman who had suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years, who had depleted all her resources trying to find a cure, to no avail, came up behind Jesus in a crowd, and surreptitiously touched a tassel on the corner of his robe. According to the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, a religious Jew had four blue tassels, usually concealed, woven on the fringe of his garment. As soon as the woman touched the tassel on Jesus’ robe, she was healed.

Even though crowds of people surrounded Jesus, pressing in on him, he knew immediately that there was something different about the way someone had touched him, because he noticed that power had gone out from him.

The woman may have wanted to keep her situation private for various reasons. First, she may well have been embarrassed because of the nature of her disease. Second, according to Leviticus 5:2-5,??? a woman in her condition was deemed ceremonially unclean, which meant that anyone she came into contact with would also be considered unclean, and subject to restrictions to prevent social contact and participation in public worship. If she was married, for 12 years she would have been unable to enjoy a normal physical relationship with her husband, who by law could not touch her while she was hemorrhaging. The woman probably thought that if she revealed her condition, she would be subject to abuse from members of the crowd, and perhaps to rebuke from Jesus for conveying her uncleanness to him by touching him.

When Jesus announced that he was aware of what had taken place, the woman realized she could not hide any more. She came forward, trembling, to be sure, but nonetheless, she came out of the shadows of the past 12 years of isolation and confessed in the presence of all the people what she had done, and how she had been healed. To her delight, Jesus did not admonish her or begrudge her her miracle, but instead encouraged and affirmed her faith.

Question: What does this woman’s experience with Jesus suggest about how you should interact with Jesus when you have a hidden grief or trouble?

For Further Discussion

1. What does it mean to be tracked by God? Is this just scary theology used to keep people on the right path? 

2. Is it possible for us to track the wild and free Holy Spirit? Wouldn’t it be good to know where the Spirit is at work in the world so we can join in? How might we do that?

3. When Jennifer Bryant’s sister called her, sputtering something about three 70-pound boxes containing 51 cases of SpongeBob SquarePants Popsicles that had been delivered to her house, she was bewildered. She had no idea what her sister was talking about.
              “You know, you really need to stop ordering all this stuff,” her sister fumed. Not only did she not have freezer space for 918 melting popsicles, but she was not about to pay the nearly $2,619 charge to their shared Amazon Prime account!
              Gradually, Bryant began to put the popsicle puzzle pieces together. She had loaned her laptop to her 4-year-old son, Noah Ruiz, for a remote learning session. While she was busy in another room, the tyke had found his way into her Amazon Prime account and ordered 51 cases of the frozen treats. He couldn’t resist, since he passionately loves popsicles and SpongeBob. Noah has autism spectrum disorder, which Bryant thought might account for his unusual actions and ability to navigate the internet so skillfully.
              Bryant was unable to return the ice pops to Amazon, and she was worried that her credit card company might not reverse the charge. How was she going to pay the fee, on top of her own tuition bills for the semester? Fortunately, a friend started a GoFundMe account for her, which covered the cost of the popsicles, and then some.
              Noah never got to consume his ill-gotten treats, but hopes someday he might meet SpongeBob in person, in spite of his error in judgment.
              We can’t expect a child to understand the ramifications of his actions, the way an adult normally would. Nor can we conclude from this anecdote that all hidden things are necessarily revealed in this life, the way Noah’s actions became obvious by the delivery of three boxes of popsicles and the appearance of a $2,619 charge on Bryant’s credit card bill. Some mysteries remain secrets throughout much of human history, but will be uncovered at the Last Judgment.
              Are you looking forward to “the Big Reveal”? Why or why not? 

4. Read Genesis 18:16-33. We see that God is holding Sodom and Gomorrah accountable for their actions (v. 21), but could we also say that God seems to permit Abraham to “hold God accountable to do what is right” (vv. 23-25)? Explain. 

Responding to the News

Perhaps this is a good time to talk to God about how you feel about the extent of his knowledge about you, and to ask God to help you grow in his grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

Prayer from Psalm 139:23-24

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. Amen.

 

  

In class, we will talk about some of these passages and look for some insight into the big questions, as well as talk about other questions you may have about this topic. Please join us.