Google Isn’t Done Tracking You Yet, Experts Say

Not quite the privacy move you might think

Key Takeaways

  • Google is still working toward removing third-party cookies.
  • While promising a more privacy-first web experience, the company is still working on ways to make targeted advertising work.
  • Google’s Privacy Sandbox will be less invasive, but it could still track your usage.
a woman uses a credit card to buy something online
Matt Cardy / Getty Images

Google’s removal of third-party cookies isn’t the death of targeted advertisements. Experts say the company simply is changing how the game is played.

Google announced plans to remove support for third-party cookies from its Chrome browser near the end of 2019. While other browsers already offered ways to block cookies, Chrome’s removal is a huge deal because of how ingrained Google is within the world of technology as a whole. Now, Google has provided an update about its move, including details of its Privacy Sandbox, which effectively will replace how the company tracks your online data and shares it with advertisers.

"Google's solution is to do away with tracking cookies and replace them with a more anonymous, interest-based approach," Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate at Comparitech, told Lifewire via email. "That being said, Google can track you through a number of ways on any of its services. It still records your search queries, location, and YouTube watch history, for example."

What’s At Stake

If you’ve gone online in the past few years, chances are you’ve come across a popup message on a website mentioning the use of "cookies" to improve your experience.

Websites use these to track things like which pages you visit, when you add items to your cart, and more. Advertisers also use this information to specifically target you for certain products. One of the biggest problems with cookies is many people don’t fully understand what kind of access they’re giving up when they allow them.

Google's solution is to do away with tracking cookies and replace them with a more anonymous, interest-based approach.

"Our research has shown that people have very little understanding and awareness of all the third-party tracking that takes place over the Internet today," Norman Sadeh, a member of Carnegie Melon’s CyLab Security and Privacy Institute, told Lifewire in an email. "It has also shown that, when you tell them what tracking takes place, how extensive the tracking is and the many different ways in which this data is used, typically without their knowledge or consent, many people have very strong objections."

Not only are people unaware of the full extent of what kind of data cookies share about them, but that data is also always in danger. Because third-party cookies often contain data about the individual user—your name, credit card number, and other private info—hackers and other online threats also can use these cookies to gain access to that data. 

This is why virtual private networks (VPNs) have become such a popular item in recent years, as they help protect how your online data is being shared across the internet.

What Google is Doing Differently

While it might sound like Google is going to stop tracking you, that’s not the case. However, the changes the company is promising will make your data more private. Google’s Privacy Sandbox won't contain individual data on you—the way that third-party cookies do—but rather place you in a crowd of users (a system known as FLoC). This means advertisers and the like will see that a large group found this particular topic or product interesting, instead of simply being able to target you, specifically.

It’s a welcome move, and one that Google was falling behind on. Other browsers, like Mozilla’s Firefox, already include ways to block third-party cookies. Still, experts like Jim Isaak, a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), want to make it clear that Google isn’t ending tracking.

3 Google icons representing settings, user profiles, and security

"Third-party cookies have been a moot point for some time, [since] most browsers either already ignore them, or allow them to be turned off," Isaak said in an email interview. "However, there are other tools used to track users, which is why these are not needed."

Isaak explained that many websites use alternative tracking methods like web beacons, which he referred to as "second-party cookies." They’re usually invisible, and can be used to track your usage across multiple pages after being activated by you selecting an icon or other area of the site. Further tracking options make use of this second-party relationship, including Facebook Pixel, which allows advertisers to track how you interact with their ads on certain pages. 

"Turning off third-party cookies is privacy ‘theater,’ not an activity with significant privacy value," Isaak said.

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