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iOS 14.5 launches today, taking on Facebook and Google tracking

Apple's software update, available for free now for iPhones and iPads, brings major privacy changes.

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Patrick Holland/CNET
This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

One of Apple's biggest privacy changes in years has arrived in a software update you may barely even notice until after you install it on your iPhone. The new software, boringly named iOS 14.5, was released Monday. It includes the typical fixes you'd expect in a minor software update. Apple will now allow people to unlock their iPhone with their Apple Watch, which is handy when wearing a face mask in public to protect against the coronavirus. People using Apple Maps can also report accidents they see on the road. And of course there's new emoji, like a heart on fire, a dizzy face and an exhaling face. 

The most controversial change comes when people open up apps from companies like Facebook. There, they'll be asked whether they consent to having their activity tracked across apps and websites they use. Facebook will begin including a message in its app to explain what it uses this tracking for, but it has also started a campaign pushing back against Apple's approach.

Apple's move, which it delayed from its original plans to implement the privacy features late last year, mark the latest way the tech giant is attempting to live up to its advertising promise of offering software tools that guarantee better privacy

Whether you think it's a genuine effort to embrace CEO Tim Cook's mantra that "privacy is a fundamental human right," or merely a way to kneecap competition while looking good to customers probably depends on how you feel about Apple. 

But Apple is making these moves as people are reckoning with how the internet truly works. Between Facebook's Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, seemingly unrelenting streams of hacking attacks and creepily well-targeted ads appearing on Google, Amazon and all manner of other sites we visit daily, users are starting to learn what they trade away for all those "free" services they use. 

Buried deep in the agreements we all say yes to but almost never read, most tech companies have written in the right to surveil us on a level once thought possible only in science fiction. Companies can track us across the apps we use, sites we visit and shows we watch. They can learn where we spend our money and what we buy and pair that with the data from our closest friends to create rich profiles of who they think we are.

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As we've learned over the years, that data is worth unimaginable amounts of money. Facebook and Google may've kept their promise that they won't sell information about us to the highest bidder, but still, they have helped advertisers target us with shockingly precise advertising -- and Pew Research has found that many people feel that's bad.

In an interview with the Toronto Star on April 12, Cook said iOS 14.5 was created in part because he believes people should be asked to give consent to modern advertising techniques. In Apple's case, the new software will include a pop-up, asking users if they consent to allowing an app or company to "track" them "across apps and websites owned by other companies" in order to "deliver personalized ads to you."

"We think that some number of people -- I don't know how many -- don't want to be tracked like that," Cook said. "And they should be able to say they don't."

Though Apple's new iOS 14.5 privacy settings will push these issues front and center when they offer people an easy way to turn off more-invasive tracking, they won't put an end to the practice, though Google promises it's easing up a bit.

Apple's iOS 14.5 is available free for iPhones and iPads dating back to 2015's iPhone 6S and 2014's iPad Air 2.