Web Browsers Aren’t Using Cookies Any More, But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Tracking Us
Google has announced a new, privacy-friendly means of collecting user data for advertisers — but how privacy-friendly is it really?
Earlier this month, Google’s Chrome became the latest — and largest — web browser to phase out third-party cookies that allow websites to track individual web users’ activity and provide data about their online habits to advertisers. The internet behemoth, whose browser facilitates two-thirds of web traffic, follows Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari, which announced a default block on third-party cookies in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Chrome’s shift marks the end of a golden era for internet advertising. For nearly two decades, online advertisers have used third-party cookies, or third-party trackers, to record where internet users go and what they do once they leave a site. This provides advertisers individualized data on users’ interests and habits that can then be used to target them with ads for relevant products or services. This is how and why you see ads for the shirt you just considered buying all over the next, unrelated website you visit.
Not all cookies are evil, though. Cookies are a type of code, or a digital tool, downloaded to a user’s computer. Some cookies allow a website to remember your password, so you don’t have to log in every time. Others allow you to add items to a shopping cart and have them remain there until checkout. But the tracking kind has increasingly come under fire in recent years, amid high-profile mass leaks of data collected by these tools and their role in Facebook-Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of U.S. elections and the U.K.’s Brexit vote.
Still, as invasive as third-party cookies are, it’s not a given that whatever replaces them will be any better from a user perspective.
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That replacement is FLoC, an alternative tool Google is offering to digital advertisers. FLoC groups users into cohorts based on recent, similar internet use and ascribes a behavioral label to the group. These groups ostensibly protect individual privacy while also providing advertisers with collective, anonymized data that, according to Google, allows them to target 95% as effectively as third-party cookies. Cohorts will be refreshed and regrouped weekly.
It’s basically a ripoff of Facebook ad’s audience targeting — known as profiling — which would be fine, except for the fact that this model has its own set of problems. Namely that the machine-learning algorithms and other AI tech behind profiling often replicate real-world biases and have been known to facilitate discrimination and predation under the guise of effective advertising.
Chrome’s new advertising tool, in order to work, also provides every website you visit with your cohort’s information — arguably an increase of data sharing when compared with third-party cookies, which did not share user data with every website visited.
Additionally, FLoC cohorts will make web users more vulnerable to fingerprinting, “a method of collecting data about a person’s device — be it phone, laptop or tablet — that they might not even have thought to hide,” according to a previous report for The Swaddle. This data is used to identify a unique ‘fingerprint’ for a user. But with FLoC, instead of sifting through millions of users’ data to identify an individual’s unique digital ‘fingerprint,’ sites will only need to sift through the data of the cohort — that is, data from only a few thousand users.
Finally, while Google plans to phase out third-party cookies, it will still use first-party cookies. In other words, the internet giant will still be following every move you make on Chrome and its other platforms (like YouTube) recording it. Any ad seen on Google Search will continue to be targeted specifically at you, based on your individual data collected directly by Google. Chrome’s third-party cookie ban just keeps others from collecting that data, which means Google’s revenue from ads on Google Search — already more than half of Google’s revenue — is set to explode, as sources of individual data collection dry up.
Ultimately, data privacy advocates argue that FLoC is old wine in a new bottle. Our online habits, at least on Chrome, will still be tracked and sold, just in a new, somewhat more anonymous way. Protecting personal data is a long, unending game that we all have to play.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.