Study Reveals Widespread Confusion and Misunderstanding About App Tracking on Mobile Phones


A recent study conducted by the University of Bath’s School of Management in the UK has shed light on the prevalent confusion surrounding app tracking among mobile phone users. The research found that a staggering 43 percent of users were either confused or unclear about the meaning of “app tracking.”

App tracking refers to the practice employed by companies to deliver targeted advertising to smartphone users based on their app usage. However, the study highlighted that many smartphone users mistakenly believed that app tracking was an inherent part of app functionality or meant to enhance their user experience.

To provide users with more control over their data sharing, Apple introduced the App Tracking Transparency framework in April 2021. When iPhone users open an app for the first time, they are asked whether they want to allow the app company to track their activity across other apps. They can choose either “Ask App Not to Track” or “Allow.” Android users, on the other hand, must access tracking consent through their phone settings.

Opting out of tracking means that users’ app and website usage cannot be traced by the company, and their data cannot be used for targeted advertising or shared with data brokers.

The study, published in The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, revealed that the most common misconception (24 percent) among participants was associating tracking with sharing their physical location rather than tracing app and website usage.

Interestingly, the researchers found that concern for privacy or security did not necessarily correlate with a lower acceptance rate for tracking. Over half of the participants (51 percent) expressed concerns about privacy and security, including the security of their data once it had been collected.

The researchers attributed the widespread misunderstanding to the lack of clarity in the wording used by companies in the tracking prompts. The prompts are often ambiguous and easily misinterpreted by users.

Hannah Hutton, a postgraduate researcher from the university’s School of Management, emphasized the need for greater transparency regarding digital data usage. She highlighted that while some data is essential for services to function properly, other data allows companies to generate revenue through advertising.

The study underscores the importance of educating users about app tracking and ensuring that they can make informed decisions about their data in the digital age. As technology continues to advance, it is crucial to bridge the gap between users’ understanding and the complex mechanisms behind data collection and privacy protection.


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