Google’s Third-Party Cookie Replacement Is Flawed, Experts Say

Going off topic

Key Takeaways

  • Google has introduced a new mechanism called Topics as a replacement for third-party cookies.
  • Topics has been developed after taking in the feedback from its previous attempt called FLoC.
  • Privacy advocates think the whole approach is flawed since third-party cookies are a small part of a bigger problem.
chocolate chip cookie resting on a MacBook keyboard

Rutmer Visser / Getty Images

Google has proposed a new mechanism to replace the dreaded, privacy-intruding third-party cookie, but privacy advocates aren't thrilled.

The search giant has been planning for years to scrap cookies, which allow advertisers to track users' movements across the web. Recently, it announced it's ditching its initial attempt, called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), in favor of a new mechanism called Topics. While Google asserts Topics inculcates the feedback it received from trialing FLoC, privacy-minded folks say it's unwise to expect any solution from Google to completely avoid tracking. 

"Topics could be seen as the natural evolution of FLoC in Google's ongoing, semi-committed battle against targeted advertising," Brian Chappell, chief security strategist at BeyondTrust, told Lifewire over email. "I say 'semi-committed' as Google is the company it is because of advertising."

FLoC Flopped

Mechanisms like FLoC and Topics are a result of web users becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the extent to which large data-collecting companies like Google track, analyze, and market to them.

Chappell said Google’s original plan was to reduce the intensity with which advertisers could target users by gathering them into groups, so-called cohorts, with shared demographics or interests. It also ensured the groups were sufficiently large so that an individual user was one in a thousand.

"Add to this your browser simply not providing cross-site cookies, which are cookies not related to the site you are actually visiting, and you've moved from a group of one into cohorts of many thousands," said Chappell. 

Privacy campaigners flogged FLoC from the start, doubting its effectiveness, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation arguing FLoC would "avoid the privacy risks of third-party cookies, but it will create new ones in the process."

Old Wine

Topics essentially promises the same thing as FLoC, which is to keep our identity and movements hidden from advertisers, but in a slightly different way.

Peter Snyder, senior director of privacy at Brave browser, told Lifewire via email that although Topics is slightly better than FLoC, it certainly doesn't improve privacy.

"It makes Chrome, the least private browser, slightly less bad by adding a small amount of randomness to users' learned interests, but it's still an insufficient effort by Google to catch up with other browsers that offer real privacy protections," asserted Snyder, who has also authored a detailed post on Topics.

"Topics could be seen as the natural evolution of FLoC in Google’s on-going, semi-committed battle against targeted advertising."

With Topics, Google will monitor the websites users visit to learn about their interests. This information will be refreshed every three weeks. When users visit a website, Chrome will allow advertisers access to three of these topics, chosen at random, to help them decide which adverts to show to the visitors.

The intent, said Chappell, is clearly to further lower the frequency of fingerprinting, making it harder for advertisers and malicious actors to accurately track users across the internet. However, he asserted, Topics is still providing additional data points about users which can be combined into a more comprehensive fingerprint, albeit potentially less specific.

"With Topics, Google is just twisting user tracking and profiling in different ways," asserted Jón Stephenson von Tetzchner, CEO of Vivaldi browser, in a post about Google Topics.

Cookie Crumbles

Chappell importantly noted that cookies were only part of the problem. "Cookies alone weren't enough [to track users], which lead to additional data points being used to fingerprint, and those other data points are still there."

He shared that data such as your browser and its version, your machine's operating system, and your IP address can all be used to fingerprint your system. 

3d technology illustration A fingerprint scanner is integrated into the printed circuit. release binary code

Surasak Suwanmake / Getty Images

Topics is part of Google's larger Privacy Sandbox initiative to improve web privacy while keeping advertisers happy. Apporwa Verma, Senior Application Security Engineer at Cobalt, pointed out to Lifewire via email that as part of its Topics proposal, Google has itself admitted that while it'll take steps to avoid topics that might be sensitive, such as race and religion, it is still possible for websites to "combine or correlate topics with other signals to infer sensitive information, outside of intended use." 

"This is a huge let down from a privacy perspective, looking at how much Google competitors like Mozilla Firefox, TOR browser, etc., provide in terms of privacy for their users," she added.

Ricardo Signes, CTO of Fastmail, told Lifewire over email that the very idea that a web browser has a mechanism for collecting advertising targeting data violates user privacy. 

"Topics is the newest evolution of that system and, if anything, this announcement indicates that the collection and sale of user data will only continue."

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