How Google Is Tracking You (Even When It Shouldn't)

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Monday, July 12, 2021

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How Google Is Tracking You (Even When It Shouldn't)

Cookies have become a ubiquitous part of internet use over recent years, launching a thousand memes and now feeling more of an annoyance than something we really need to pay close attention to.

However, third-party cookies could soon become a thing of the past after Google revealed plans to ditch them next year. But is this really the positive development it at first seems - or could the alternative prove even worse for privacy?

Google's decision - and FLoC

The search behemoth said in one of its blogs last year that it wants to stop using tracking cookies by 2022, but it wasn't until March this year that something of a furore broke out over what it plans to do instead.

Google said it wants to see a group profiling system created in order to steer "a course towards a more privacy-friendly web". It said it recognizes that first-party cookies are essential, but has become increasingly unhappy with the way advertisers are using third-party cookies to track users as they move around the internet.

The replacement will be part of the Chrome Privacy Sandbox and is called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). The plan is that Chrome users will be analyzed through machine learning to create an ad interest profile.

Rather than advertisers being able to see individual user preferences, they’ll be grouped together in 1,000-strong cohorts based on their interests. For example, Chrome might put you in a wine-drinking hockey fan cohort and show you ads based on these hobbies.

"This approach effectively hides individuals 'in the crowd' and uses on-device processing to keep a person's web history private on the browser," explained Google's Chetna Bindra.

The system is already being trialed in countries including the US, Australia and Japan, but it won’t be operated in the EU due to GDPR regulations.

So - what's the problem?

This might sound great: an end to those pesky cookie pop-ups and targeted ads the minute we've Googled something. Sign us up - right?

Well, advertisers are the first to speak up against FLoC. They claim that because Google Chrome has a 60% market share, this will effectively be a way of closing off more than half the internet and giving Google an advantage over its rivals.

And because Google makes a profit from selling cookies and ad data, they're not simply going to write off this revenue in the name of privacy; the alternative will be making them money.

Privacy advocate Cory Munchbach told The Daily Swag:

"That is why you can insert a layer of skepticism about this proposal. FLoC benefits Google and consolidates their influence under the guise of privacy."
 

Cyjax's Ian Thornton-Trump agreed in a Forbes interview:

"You don't become a multi-billion-dollar company without grabbing as much data as you can then monetize.”
 

Google's no angel

Despite its claims about wanting more privacy, the shine might have been wearing off Google's halo a little lately. It’s currently facing a lawsuit alleging that it collects hordes of data from Chrome users in 'Incognito mode' without notifying them.

What's more, it’s emerged that Chrome actually collects far more data than its rivals such as Safari and Edge, all of which is linked to user identities.

Critics also warn that even with this 'safety in numbers' approach that Google wants, there’s still quite a high risk of individual identification within cohorts based on inference.

For example, if a cohort is based around an employer and the data finds only a couple of horror movie-loving camping enthusiasts within that cohort, it wouldn't take too much digging to identify them by name.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that instead of constantly rebooting targeted ads in this way, browser creators should be moving away from them:

"Browser developers should focus on providing a private, user-friendly experience without catering to the interests of behavioral advertisers."
 

Where do we stand currently?

So far, other tech companies have reacted almost universally negatively toward FLoC. WordPress, DuckDuckGo and Microsoft are among those who have blocked FLoC as a tracking feature, although the latter said it may reconsider this going forward "if it proves to be an acceptable replacement for third-party cookies".

Cybersecurity experts have also suggested that individual users act to boycott FLoC.

"If we don't reward the apps and platforms that secure and respect our data, and move away from those that do not, then we send a message that it's okay to harvest at will." - Zak Doffman
 

However, it remains to be seen how many people will actually do this versus the number that opt for the convenience of continuing to use Chrome as before. It may be that apathy and that vast market share results in Google simply getting what it wants.

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