Mike Stone

Mostly The Lonely Howls Of Mike Baying His Ideological Purity At The Moon

Google's Privacy Sandbox

15 Feb 2021

In August of 2020, Google announced an initiative called the “Privacy Sandbox”. Now, I normally just laugh softly to myself whenever Google mentions the word “privacy” since never the twain shall meet. I did decide to look a little closer at this particular initiative. Here are my thoughts on the whole matter.

I see this initiative as a response to Apple’s latest anti-tracking feature. Apple has made a big stink about privacy lately, and there are many in the community that view Apple as a champion of privacy. Personally, I don’t believe that Apple cares about privacy any more than I believe I can breathe under water, but that’s a subject for another time.

The fact of the matter is, Google makes over one hundred billion dollars a year in ad sales. They’re not going to turn off that money faucet, so if they’re talking about privacy and limiting data gathering, they’re not thinking of stopping data gathering altogether. At best they’re trying to make their gathering more efficient so they get the same data with less work on their part.

The Privacy Sandbox page on chromium.org states this:

Privacy Sandbox project’s mission is to “Create a thriving web ecosystem that is respectful of users and private by default.”

How they’re going to accomplish the task of being “respectful of users and private by default” at least starts by ending something called third party cookies. What are third party cookies? I’m glad you asked, because otherwise this next part would be boring.

Normally, a cookie’s domain attribute will match the domain that is shown in the web browser’s address bar. This is called a first-party cookie. A third-party cookie, however, belongs to a domain different from the one shown in the address bar. This sort of cookie typically appears when web pages feature content from external websites, such as banner advertisements. This opens up the potential for tracking the user’s browsing history and is often used by advertisers in an effort to serve relevant advertisements to each user.

I’ve always thought that third party cookies were creepy. Why is a page I’ve never intentionally visited setting a cookie on my computer? It shouldn’t, plain and simple. Because of my personal opinions on the matter, I’m all for Google (and everybody else) pushing to remove them from the Universe. The sooner the better.

The problem is that Google is not just trying to kill third party cookies, it’s trying to replace them with something called “FLoC” (Federated Learning of Cohorts). With FLoC, browsers would develop and update “cohorts” (an interest based grouping of thousands of users) based on the URLs visited, maybe even the content of those sites. It’s more “private” because Google (and theoretically other advertisers) would only pay attention the cohorts an individual is a member of, and not the individual themselves.

Further, the people who created FLoC have said they would only log cohorts of individuals who have consented to that logging in their browsers settings, so it would be more of an “opt in” scenario than an a “you wish you could opt out” situation.

So, Google said that this will be available for testing in March of 2021. Is this a step forward for personal privacy? I don’t know. I can see where it’s a shiny object to show the public to distract them from the fact that Google is tracking everything. I have a hard time believing that Google is going to just stop tracking individual activity, and I don’t think they need third party cookies to do it. I have a sneaking suspicion that Google is doing this because they don’t need the cookies and many of their “competitors” still do. It will only benefit Google in the long run, and if they can look better by throwing on a façade of privacy, all the better for them.

So, my thoughts? I think Google is serving Google. I think with FLoC and browsers parsing through the pages you’re looking at, Google may actually increase the amount of information they’re gathering. I think Google is going to do all that while hurting their competitors and distracting the attention of everybody else.

Day 11 of the #100DaysToOffload 2021 Series.

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