Google Pushes Privacy, But Can a Leopard Really Change Its Spots?

At first glance it looks like Google is turning over a new leaf. The tech giant has announced it will no longer track third party cookies on Chrome and it won’t help build another way of tracking users’ browsing history for targeted advertising.  

Instead of third party cookies, Google wants to categorize users into groups known as Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoCs), based on consumer type and habits, interests and preferences, and then let advertisers target those groups or FLoCs instead of individuals. It’s the centrepiece of Google’s new “Privacy Sandbox”. 

On the face of it, Google is prioritizing privacy and trying to claw back trust, while throwing the ad industry, which relies on data amassed via Google, under the proverbial bus. 

But can a leopard really change its spots? 

No.  

Google knows consumers are fed up with the data economy, and regulators are currently investigating three separate antitrust allegations against it. It certainly needs some positive optics. But this new play for privacy is nothing but a smokescreen concealing the fact the tech giant will remain largely unaffected by the new rules. As they note over at Recode: “A third party cookie ban won’t hurt the search giant’s healthy first party data ad business.” 

The biggest tell is that its FLoCs proposal does not apply to mobile phones that use Google’s Android operating system, where Google maintains multiple identifiers for each user and gives those identifiers to advertisers. Since globally 71.93 percent of mobiles run Android and mobile internet use is now at 54.46 percent and growing, excluding Android mobile phones from the new setup drastically dilutes Google’sprofessed desire to abandon ad tracking. Of course, one bit of good news for Apple iPhone users is the iOS 14 update stops cross-app tracking, which will limit Google’s influence on their devices.  

What’s more, Google will continue to let advertisers target users via the email addresses it stores, and it will continue to target ads using first party data from its own billions of users on YouTube, Gmail and Chrome.Remember, Chrome has 65 percent market share worldwide, and most of Google’s revenue comes from ads on Google Search.  

As Ken Glueck, Executive VP of Oracle points out in his article “With dominance over both the browser and the mobile OS, Google no longer needs cookies.” 

Further, the FLoC groupings are so dynamic and defining they will eventually reveal the individualwithin them. Individuals will be tracked and have their data assigned to so many different FLoCs over time that eventually a simple generated list will distil down to reveal the actual individual. Same, same but different, right? 

We like how Ken Gluek sums up Google’s smokescreen attempt at a privacy-first future:  

What Google doesn’t really say is that effectively none of Google’s own privacy invasive practices are changing. Chrome will still monitor every web site and action a logged-in consumer takes on the web. Android will still collect your precise geolocation, your movements, and your app usage, while surreptitiously mapping every Wi-Fi base station and Bluetooth beacon on the planet. Google search will still catalogue every desire and query no matter how intimate, while the array of Google’s own first-party analytic and advertising cookies will collect more data than the now banned third-party cookies ever would have.  

The FLoCers must be ROFLing (I know, very uncool) all over Mountain View because what they have just doneunilaterally—is wiped out the competition for consumer data and any semblance of competition in online advertising, without actually enhancing privacy.  

Google’s sandbox is little more than an attempt at using privacy as a pretext to solidify its dominance. 

The bottom line for us is that users still need to be proactive in protecting their own personal data, using Sudo profiles and all the privacy tools in MySudo, like private browsing that blocks ads and tracker cookies by default, alternative private email and phone numbers.  

If you want to go deeper into the Google issue, Ken Gluek’s article is really worth a read.