Late last week, Google announced that something called Privacy Sandbox has been introduced to the “majority” of Chrome users, and that it will expand to 100% of users in the coming months. But what is it exactly?
The new suite of features represents a fundamental shift in how Chrome will track user data for the benefit of advertisers. Instead of third-party cookies, Chrome can now tap directly into your browsing history to gather information on ad “topics” (more on that later).
In development since 2019, this change has attracted considerable controversy, as some commentators consider it invasive in terms of privacy.
Understanding how it works – and whether you want to opt in or out – is important, as Chrome remains the most widely used browser in the world, with 63% market share by May 2023. (Safari is in second place with 13%).
Wait, what’s a cookie?
In 1994, Lou Montulli, a computer engineer at Netscape, revolutionized the way we browse the Internet with the invention of the “cookie.” For the first time, web pages can remember our passwords, preferences, language settings, and even shopping carts.
This method was considered a private exchange of information between the user and the website – known as a first-party cookie. But within two years, advertisers found a way to “hack” cookies to track users. These are third-party cookies.
You can think of a first-party cookie like a shop assistant who listens to your preferences and is happy to hold your bags or clothes while you make your selections – but only when you’re inside their store. Are.
A third-party cookie is like a bug from an old spy movie. It listens to everything in your room, but only shares information with its colleagues. “Spy” may place this cookie on other people’s sites, to record what you view and what data you enter. If you’ve ever wondered how Facebook serves you an ad about something related to the news story you just read, chances are it’s because you have third-party cookies enabled.
Unregulated online tracking and surveillance through cookies was the default until 2018, when the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) were introduced. If you’ve noticed more pop-ups informing you about cookies and asking for your informed consent, you have the GDPR and CCPA to thank.
Read more: Cookies: I looked at 50 popular websites and most are collecting our data illegally
The first browsers to drop support for third-party cookies were Apple’s Safari in 2017 and Mozilla’s Firefox in 2019.
But Google is also a major online advertising company, with ads making up 57.8% of Google’s revenue by 2023. They have been the slowest to turn off third-party cookies in Chrome. With the introduction of the Privacy Sandbox, they are now expected to begin turning off cookies sometime in 2024.
How is Privacy Sandbox different from cookies?
The details of how the Privacy Sandbox collection of features works are quite technical. But here are some of the most important aspects.
Instead of using third-party cookies to show you ads across the Internet, Chrome will provide something called ad topics. These are high-level summaries of your browsing behavior, tracked locally (such as in your browsing history), which companies can access upon request to advertise to you on particular topics.
Additionally, there are features like Protected Audiences that can serve ads to you for “remarketing” (for example, Chrome tracked you visiting a listing for a toaster, so now you’ll get ads for a toaster elsewhere). , and attribution reporting, which collects data on ad clicks.
In short, instead of spying third-party cookies, these cookie-enabled features will be available directly within Chrome.
Is user tracking necessarily bad?
While Google touts the Privacy Sandbox as something that will improve user privacy, not everyone agrees.
If these features are turned on, Google – one of the largest advertising companies in the world – is essentially able to listen to you everywhere on the web.
Tracking technology can definitely benefit us too. For example, it might be helpful if an online store reminds you every three months that you need a new toothbrush, or that this time last year you bought a birthday card for your mom.
Offloading cognitive effort, such as with reminders like this, is a great way for automation to assist humanity. When used in situations where precise accuracy is required, it can make our lives easier and more enjoyable.
However, if you’re not comfortable with monitoring, the alternative to third-party cookies isn’t necessarily the new privacy sandbox in Chrome.
The alternative is to disable tracking altogether.
what can you do?
If you don’t want your online activities to be tracked for advertising purposes, there are some straightforward alternatives.
By far the most private browser experts are non-tracking browsers that don’t prioritize tracking, like DuckDuckGo and Brave. But if you don’t want to get that stupid, Safari and Firefox already have third-party cookies blocked by default.
The tools found in Google Chrome are provided under Settings – Ad Privacy. You can turn each section on or off individually, and click on them to see more details. Screenshot via conversation
If you don’t mind some useful targeted ads, you can keep the Chrome Privacy Sandbox setting turned on.
If you want to adjust these settings or turn them off, click the three dots in the upper-right corner and go to Settings > Privacy & Security > Ad Privacy, It’s unclear whether turning off these features will stop Chrome from collecting these data altogether, or whether it will simply stop sharing the data with advertisers. You can get more details about each feature on the Google Chrome Help page.
Finally, it’s good to remember that nothing really comes for free. Developing software costs money. If you’re not paying for it, chances are you – or your data – is the product. We need to revolutionize how we think about our data and what it really means.
Read more: The ugly truth: Tech companies are tracking and abusing our data, and there’s little we can do