How New Internet Tracking Could Introduce Privacy Risks

User privacy may take another hit

Key Takeaways

  • Google is already pushing out its replacement for third-party cookies with the latest Chrome updates.
  • Despite promising more user protection, experts say FLoC is a step backward for user privacy.
  • Experts claim some of FLoC's systems and lack of protections could make it easier for advertisers to identify you individually.
Someone concentrating on a touch screen display. The point of view is from behind the screen, looking through the moving data.

Laurence Dutton / Getty Images

Google promises better user privacy with its new tracking method, but experts say it could actually be worse for you.

Google finally is starting to roll out its Federal Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) system in Chrome in an effort to do away with third-party cookies. While FLoC promises better privacy for users, privacy-centric browsers like Vivaldi and Brave have taken hard stances against the new tracking system.

Instead, these companies claim that FLoC is a bigger threat to user privacy, and some experts agree.

"FLoC is likely worse for consumers because Chrome users' weekly web history will be analyzed and put into groupings that were not data previously provided to marketers," Debbie Reynolds, a global data privacy and protection expert, told Lifewire in an email.

"Your browsing activity without your true identity is almost like a fingerprint, so the danger is having people identified by marketers."

Building a Fingerprint

According to Reynolds, one of the biggest concerns with FLoC is fingerprinting. Essentially, this is the practice of taking as many discrete bits of information from a browser and using them to create a unique identifier for that browser. 

This information can include things like the location of the website you're requesting, as well as information about your computer itself—including screen resolution, the fonts you have installed, and other things.

While it might seem unimportant for someone to track that kind of information, it can be combined with other data that websites collect to create a clearer picture of who you are. 

Sometimes, this information can even tell things like which religious background you have, your political standing, and more.

Because it can be combined with other data and used to gain a deeper understanding of who you are, fingerprinting is a massive privacy concern that many browsers like Brave and Vivaldi already are fighting against. It’s also an issue that Google has admitted is a problem and one that it has plans to address.

Unfortunately, with FLoC already rolling out, those looking to put together a detailed picture of your data could have the perfect chance to strike.

Because FLoC works by putting you into groups based on your browsing history and likes—which Google has said will be composed of thousands of users each—privacy experts warn fingerprinters will have a marginally smaller pool to work through if they want to create a picture of your device.

Google’s privacy sandbox is a long-term project, and FLoC is just one part of it. While the company has plans to fight back against fingerprinting through its privacy budget in the future, the last update to the budget’s frequently asked questions notes that it is still in the early-proposal stages.

This means it could be months or even years before we see proper fingerprinting support within Chrome.

Sense and Sensitivity

Another concern with how FLoC gathers data and uses it comes down to how the system determines sensitive and identifiable information.

"Most people wouldn't share their medical history with a shop, but they might share their credit history," Simon Dalley, director of Grow Traffic, a digital marketing agency, told Lifewire in an email.

"Similarly online, you might not want all those late-night, anxiety-fueled health searches to be included, but you might not mind too much about your day-to-day searches."

"FLoC is likely worse for consumers because Chrome users' weekly web history will be analyzed and put into groupings that were not data previously provided to marketers."

Google has noted that FLoC will exclude sensitive categories like medical issues, political parties, and sexual orientation from being used in personalized advertising.

It is looking into other ways of preventing that sensitive information from being used against you. The problem with this, though, is that Google needs to access that information before it can decide whether or not it should share it.

You also have to take into account that every person views things differently. What you consider sensitive may not be sensitive to someone else and vice versa. Because of this, the sensitivity of a topic should be defined by the user.

But, because FLoC tracks all of your movements across the internet, you have no say in what information should or shouldn’t be shared. Instead, that decision falls to Google.

"The idea of decentralizing data about individuals to choose what to share and with whom is gaining momentum. I hope to see more technologies that allow more user control," Reynolds said.

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