This suite of new features represents a significant shift in how Chrome collects user data to benefit advertisers. Instead of relying on third-party cookies, Chrome now accesses your browsing history directly to gather information about your interests and preferences for advertising purposes. This change, in development since 2019, has sparked considerable controversy, with many critics expressing concerns about its impact on user privacy.
Grasping how this system works and deciding whether to opt in or out is important, especially considering that Chrome maintains its position as the world’s most widely used browser. After all, it has a 63% market share as of May 2023 (with Safari coming in second at 13%).
What are cookies?
But first, let’s take a step back and understand the concept of a “cookie.” In 1994, computer engineer Lou Montulli at Netscape revolutionized internet browsing by inventing the “cookie.” For the first time, web pages could remember user preferences, passwords, language settings, and even shopping carts.
Originally, cookies were intended to facilitate a private exchange of information between a user and a website, known as a first-party cookie. However, within a couple of years, advertisers figured out ways to “hack” cookies to track users, leading to the creation of third-party cookies.
Think of a first-party cookie as a friendly shop assistant who remembers your preferences and is willing to help while you’re inside their store. On the other hand, a third-party cookie is more like a spy bug from an old movie. It eavesdrops on everything in your room and shares the information with its allies.
This “spy” can place its cookie on various websites to monitor your online activity and collect data. If you’ve ever wondered how Facebook seems to show you ads related to a recent news story you read, it’s likely due to third-party cookies.
Unregulated online tracking and surveillance through cookies were the norm until 2018 when the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) were enacted. If you’ve noticed an increase in cookie pop-up notifications and requests for informed consent, you can thank GDPR and CCPA for raising awareness and protecting user privacy.
The first web browsers to take the step of discontinuing support for third-party cookies were Apple’s Safari in 2017 and Mozilla’s Firefox in 2019. Google, although a major player in online advertising, has been relatively slow to follow suit in eliminating third-party cookies from its Chrome browser. With the introduction of the Privacy Sandbox, Google aims to phase out cookies, a process expected to commence sometime in 2024.
What sets the Privacy Sandbox apart from cookies?
While the technical intricacies are complex, here are some key points.
Instead of relying on third-party cookies for delivering ads across the internet, Chrome will implement something called advertising Topics. These are broad summaries of your browsing behavior that are stored locally (such as in your browsing history). Companies can access them upon request to tailor ads to your interests.
In addition, there are features such as Protected Audience, which can display ads for “remarketing” purposes and Attribution Reporting, which gathers data on ad clicks. To illustrate the former case, if Chrome detected you viewing a toaster listing, you may subsequently see toaster ads elsewhere.
In essence, instead of third-party cookies being the surveillance tool, Chrome will incorporate the functionalities they enable directly into its system.
Is this inherently negative?
Google has presented the Privacy Sandbox as a means to enhance user privacy. However, not everyone shares this perspective.
With these features enabled, Google, one of the world’s largest advertising firms, gains the capability to observe your online activities across the web.
Tracking technology can have potential benefits as well. For example, it can be convenient if an online store reminds you periodically to replace your toothbrush or recalls that you purchased a birthday card for your mother at the same time last year. Outsourcing cognitive tasks, such as these reminders, is a valuable way in which automation can assist humanity. In situations requiring precision, it can make our lives more convenient and enjoyable.
However, if you are uncomfortable with the notion of constant surveillance, the alternative to third-party cookies may not necessarily be the new Privacy Sandbox in Chrome. It would be to completely disable tracking altogether.
What can you do?
If you wish to prevent your online activities from being tracked for advertising purposes, you have several straightforward options.
You can opt for specialist non-tracking browsers. The most privacy-focused browsers, such as DuckDuckGo and Brave, prioritize no tracking. Safari and Firefox already block third-party cookies by default.
Alternatively, you can customize chrome settings. Of course, if you’re comfortable with some targeted advertising, you can leave Privacy Sandbox settings on.
To adjust or disable these settings, click the three dots in the upper-right corner and navigate to Settings>Privacy and Security>Ad privacy. Still, it’s unclear whether turning off these features completely stops Chrome from collecting this data or merely prevents data sharing with advertisers. More details about each feature can be found on the Google Chrome Help page. Lastly, it’s essential to remember that nothing comes truly free. Developing software incurs costs, and if you’re not paying directly, it’s likely that you or your data are the product. It’s imperative that we reevaluate our perception of our own data and recognize its true value.