Googles new tracking

So theres a lot to unpack here and I’m really not sure how I feel about all this at all.

The short version is that google is proposing a major change in the way its ad tracking and personalization will work. This is huge because googles ads dont just show on google.com and gmail they show and track user behavior across 2/3 of the web.

They arent just changing things for the sake of it, they are calling this new feature a privacy sandbox and are making claims that this will greatly increase the privacy of everyone as the browse the web. But will it?

The old way was to use third party cookies, these are cookies left by one site that are read on other websites as you browse across the web. These cookies tell the websites who you are and where you’ve been. Advertisers can use this information to “follow you around the web” and is why you’ll often see ads for the dresser you were looking at on west elm for the next few days on nytimes and the verge.

The good

  • Trust API to replace CAPTCHAs
  • “Privacy Budget” for fingerprinting

The bad

  • Conversion measurement API

The Ugly

  • FLoC: Federated Learning of Cohorts

Its this last bit that seems to be getting most of the attention. With it chrome will be doing machine learning on the users browser history, but do it 100% locally on the machine. In theory this sounds better than doing it in the cloud (performance implications aside). This machine learning would assign you a flock name and that name will be send to every website you visit. So you aren’t uniquely identifiable, only your flock is

I liked the way that the EFF described it as a behavioral credit score. Even if these flock names arent meaningful on their own, sites, especially larger ones sill be building up their own databases of these flocks and making assumptions about what they mean to target ads properly. This actually makes the work of the advertisers even easier, before they have to collected and build these kinds of flocks themselves, now google is doing the hard work for them.

So while it might seem that these changes are a step in the right direction this is really google just coming up with cleaver work around for the rules and is sure just the next step in a growing arms race between tech and government regulators.

We’ll have to wait and see where it goes from her.