Google and the era of privacy theater

Google has some good press a few weeks ago when he announced in a blog post that it would go ahead with its plans to remove third-party cookies from the Chrome browser. The move was announced early last year as part of the company’s Privacy Sandbox initiative, but Google has now clarified that it has no plans to replace these cookies with equivalent surrogate technology. . Other browsers, including Safari and Firefox, already block third-party trackers, but given that Chrome is by far the most popular browser in the world, with a market share of around 60%, the news has been widely touted as a big step towards the end of allowing businesses to target users. advertisements by following people the Internet. “Google plans to stop selling ads based on how people browse multiple websites,” here’s how The Wall Street Journal Put the.

This news, however, has sparked some skepticism – and not just because Google, like other tech giants, has not always honored similar commitments in the past. Even at first glance, Google’s plan is hardly a radical change when it comes to privacy. It’s not even true, when you dig into it, that Chrome no longer allows ads based on people’s browsing habits. Google’s announcement is a classic example of what you might call the privacy theater: while marketed as a step forward for consumer privacy, it doesn’t change much to the dynamics behind it. ‘an industry based on surveillance-based behavioral advertising.

To understand why, you need to look at what the business is actually planning. This is difficult, because there are many proposals in Google’s Privacy Sandbox, and he has not confirmed which ones will be implemented, nor precisely how. They are also all very technical and leave open questions unanswered. I have spoken with several professional online privacy experts, people who do this for a living and the interpretations vary. Still, the basic outlines are pretty clear.

The most important proposition is what is called Federated Cohort Learning, or FLoC. (It’s pronounced “flock.” All of Google’s proposals, somewhat charmingly, have bird-themed names.) Under this proposal, instead of allowing anyone to follow you from site to site otherwise, Chrome will do the tracking itself. Then it will categorize you into a small group, or cohort, of similar users based on common interests. When you visit a new website, in theory, advertisers don’t see you, Jane C. Doe; they’ll just see whatever cohort you belong to, say, 30 or so single white women who are interested in bluetooth headphones. As the blog post by David Temkin, director of product management, ad privacy and trust, says, FLoC will allow Chrome to “hide individuals among large crowds of people with common interests.” . He touts the technology as a step towards “a future where you don’t have to sacrifice relevant advertising and monetization to deliver a private and secure experience.”

Privacy experts outside of Google have raised questions about the security of the experiment. Editorial staff for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Bennett Cyphers Remarks that dividing users into small cohorts might actually make it easier “digital print»Them – using information from someone’s browser or device to create a stable ID for that person. As Cyphers points out, fingerprinting requires gathering enough information to distinguish a user from everyone else. If websites already know that a person is part of a small cohort, they just need to distinguish them from the rest of that cohort. Google says it will develop ways to prevent fingerprints, but has not detailed its plans.

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