Google Chrome now has a new way to track what you do, and although Google claims that this is being made possible without actually tracking you, the truth is not exactly that simple. The company’s latest shot in the arm for advertisers globally is a new system called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), which the company had attempted to explain in a previous white paper. During the post, Google had claimed to be privacy evangelists again by endorsing the end of cookie based usage tracking. Its solution was this: giving advertisers user data, based on their behaviour.
Whether this would be invasive or otherwise makes for a longer debate, but before all of that, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the biggest advocates of internet privacy in the world, has launched Am I FLoCed – a new website to track Google’s shiny new idea of “privacy”. The case in point here is Google’s recent rollout of FLoCs as an experiment to some of its users – only 0.5 percent of all Google Chrome users in select regions for now, with potential to rise to 5 percent of all users during the trial phase. The problem? Google isn’t exactly telling you what it’s doing, or giving you a way to opt out.
What do FLoCs in Google Chrome do?
FLoC essentially claims to use data from your browsing history to compartmentalise your internet usage into groups of ‘behaviours’. Each cohort has a 50-bit cohort ID, which are then batched into 33,872 different such cohorts. According to Google, this will anonymise private user information completely by batching them together into different behavioural groups – for instance, if you have plenty of search results related to smartphone prices in India, Google says that the new Google Chrome update for FLoCs will take that data of yours and group it together with other such users.
Advertisers will then be able to run a snippet of code on websites, which will then direct the relevant content to this cohort or user behaviour group. By doing so, all users whom Google has already classified under this cohort will see the ad – the company’s rationale here is that you, with your private information, are no longer tracked to serve intimately personalised advertisements.
The issues with FLoCs
However, the problems here are plenty. The biggest play with EFF’s Am I FLoCed website is that no Google Chrome users are being told if they have been randomly included in the FLoC experiment that Google is doing right now. There is no notification of the same, and the only thing that users can do to defend against this is turn off third party cookies – which is what FLoCs presently work in tandem with. Furthermore, FLoCs themselves have a major issue of gauging which behaviour is sensitive and which isn’t – Google is working under the assumption that for certain groups of users, only a certain set of data parameters may classify as sensitive, and contextualising the diversity of this user data is not only incredibly difficult, but also not up to one corporate entity.
Using of FLoCs also gives up the entire set of data controls to the hands of Google, which gets to be the judge, jury and executioner for which data set is sensitive (and therefore not to be tracked), and which qualifies as sell-able data. As we have seen in the past, data classes such as medical information can prove to be extremely valuable, but have good enough grounds to be termed out of bounds, should a user prefer to do so.
For now, all that you can do is turn off third party cookie access – which is a good idea anyway. Google states that it will issue an update that will give users more control to the privacy sandbox, and FLoCs can be controlled from there itself. However, for now, Google Chrome appears to be comfortably continuing a practice that may seem to be an improvement over third party cookies on the face, but will have plenty of questions regarding its implementation, in the long run.