Google’s tracking cookies are going away. Is that good?

Privacy news
3 mins
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Update: Google has since scrapped FLoC and replaced it with Topics, a system that attempts to ascertain categories of a user’s interests.

In March, Google signaled its intentions to phase out third-party cookies, saying an overwhelming majority of people believed they were being tracked online by advertisers and that a “privacy-first web” was the need of the hour. Digital advertising, Google argued, had to evolve to address the growing concerns people have about their privacy and to protect the future of the open web. 

Google’s proposed alternative to third-party cookies is the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), which is a “new way for businesses to reach people with relevant content and ads by clustering large groups of people with similar interests.” The search giant says the approach prevents advertisers from targeting individuals and that it’s working on advances in anonymization and on-device technologies that safeguard privacy. 

Will I still be tracked through Google’s FLoC?

Google’s been touting the privacy benefits of FLoC and its efforts toward a safer web, but has been resistant to giving away too many details on the technology. But for a company that earned nearly 150 billion USD in advertising revenue in 2020, it stands to reason that it will aim to build stronger advertising tools, not weaker. 

FLoC runs in the background of your browser. While it’s dissimilar to cookies that track you as you hop from one website to the next, it still uses your overall browsing history to assign you in groups with other similar people. Each group is assigned a FLoC ID, capturing information about your habits and interests. This ID can be used by Google to analyze cross-sectional behavior, including the products and services you’re most likely to consume. Hence, when you log on to a website, you will still be served ads that Google thinks are relevant. The only change is that this analysis won’t be done through cookies, but through FLoC.

Read more: What do Big Tech companies know about you? Find out

Criticism toward Google’s FloC

FLoC is facing a spate of criticism, with privacy-first search engine DuckDuckGo announcing plans to block the tech via its browser extension and website. The DuckDuckGo Chrome extension will now automatically block all FLoC interactions, and users who search via its browser-based search engine will be automatically opted out from FLoC, too.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also come out strongly against FLoC, saying it will hurt privacy significantly. It says FLoC will increase browser fingerprinting, the practice of collecting as many data points as possible from a user’s browser to create identifiers. The EFF also points to a phenomenon called “cross-content exposure,” which tracks user behavior within the cohort that they’re assigned to.

How can I opt out of FLoC?

One of the most criticized aspects about FLoC is that millions of users were automatically added to its testing, with no warning or notifications. To that effect, the best way of avoiding FLoC is to simply delete your Chrome browser and use a privacy-focused alternative instead

If you still wish to use Chrome, you can avoid FLoC tracking by:

  • Disabling third-party cookies
  • Logging out of your Google account
  • Preventing Chrome from syncing your history data
  • In Google Activity Controls, disabling “Web & App Activity” or “Include Chrome history and activity from sites, apps, and devices that use Google services”
  • Navigating over to Google Ad Settings, disabling “Ad Personalization,” and deselecting the option “Also use your activity & information from Google services to personalize ads on websites and apps that partner with Google to show ads”

Read more: Explainer: $5bn lawsuit against Google over Incognito mode

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