Google is doing away with third-party cookies that track individuals’ browsing habits. This is a positive development that should generally improve user privacy across the internet. Let’s look at it.
Google is a search company that makes money off advertisements. They get paid based on clicks on these ads. The ads get more clicks if they are targeted toward the right audiences. Google targets the ads to the right audiences by knowing more about the users of Google Search. They know “enough” about users of search by collecting information about these users.
This information collection could come from different sources. For example (not a comprehensive list):
- Search – the information that users search
- Maps – location information
- Third-party tracking – Google plugins on non-Google websites
When you search for information on Google, Google obviously knows what you are searching for. This is required for Google to provide the service. Google stores the information and maps it against your profile, so that it can provide you with tailored ads. This is tracking using information that you directly gave Google and stored using text files called “first-party” cookies.
Maps gets information about where you are, what locations you search for, etc. This gives Google the information to provide you with geographically-relevant ads. First-party cookies are also used here.
In the specific case of Google, the provider allows you to not be tracked for a variety of actions that you do. Google allows logged-in users to disable the storage of certain kinds of activity for personalisation. There may be some activities that Google is required to collect by law or which they collect for user security that a user may not opt out of (e.g. when and from where did the user last login) and there may be some others that we do not know for certain about. Google provides users with a My Activity site and even a privacy check-up that allows discerning users to update their privacy settings. Disabling the storage of activities will impact a user in multiple ways: Google will not provide the optimal user experience; the searches will provide more generic searches and will not provide information that is most relevant to the user; Maps will not quickly bring up the locations that are most relevant to the user; advertisements will not be the most relevant. For privacy-inclined readers, the last one might seem unnecessary, but advertisements exist because they serve a purpose and users do make spending decisions based on them.
To a certain extent, most people understand that what one gives to Google, Google may keep. It is not that complicated. Third-party tracking is a different matter altogether. Many well-known websites do not just serve their own content on their websites, they have plugins from a number of other sites embedded into them. Google’s own plugins are a major part of that, providing a variety of services to the website owners. This is the part that is hard to comprehend. If you navigate to a site, Google is able to track your activity there and link it to your Google identity. Facebook uses similar technology to link your off-Facebook activity to your Facebook identity, etc.
This tracking is scarier because it feels much more insidious (why is Google tracking the user when they are not on Google?) and significantly harder to control. I actually take the measure of separating my logged-in activity and browsing activity on two distinct browsers so that they do not mix. When I come across an interesting link in a social media site, I copy-paste the link to the other browser so that the second one cannot link it to my identity on the first. It was good to hear that Google was moving away from third-party tracking and plans to kill it entirely on the Chrome browser. Google is playing catch-up: Mozilla Firefox and Safari, two other leading browsers, eliminated third-party cookie tracking long in advance. However the fact that Chrome is the most popular web browser by far and that Google gets its revenues from ads makes this a significant move that should alter the web for the better. Google is moving forward with its Privacy Sandbox, a technology that groups users into “cohorts” with similar interests to provide them with relevant ads while preserving their privacy to a certain extent.
Addition 11 July 2021: Since I wrote this article, the “FLOCs” proposed under Privacy Sandbox have come under considerable criticism with many content providers stating that their websites would not support them. Google has scrapped the plans to replace the third-party cookie with them. The most privacy-optimal option here is to not use Google Chrome for your browsing. Consider Brave or Firefox browsers instead.
This is the kind of privacy news that one likes to hear: better privacy for users, an improved user experience, advertisers get their money’s worth and everyone benefits (one can hope)!
Other innovations to preserve privacy are also moving ahead in parallel. I plan to review the Brave browser and its approach to providing ads while preserving privacy in an upcoming article.