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Google supports FLoCing in future Chrome, warns Blocking 3rd Party Cookies Very Dangerous to the Internet

by Felix Omondi

Other than Chrome, other major browsers – the likes of Firefox and Safari – have features natively baked that completely block 3rd party cookies. You know, those terrible spies that keep following you from one website to the other across the internet while funneling your history to advertisers. 3rd party cookies have made the name ‘internet cookies’ so bad that most people have forgotten their initial intended noble cause. A cause that remains critical to this day; of telling a website whether you are still logged in and the items on your cart.

3rd parties cookies collect anything and everything on you. Advertisers then use that information to profile you and serve you highly targetted ads. Yes, that is why when you were last looking at those pair of sneakers online and went to Facebook to reply to a DM from your friend, you met a Nike ad showing you their latest addition to the Jordans collection.

FLoC off 3rd Party Cookies

If all goes as planned by the browser developers at Google, Chrome will have replaced 3rd party cookies with FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) by this time next year. Let us not get into the nerdy details, but essentially, FLoC prevents websites from profiling you as an individual like 3rd Party cookies. Instead, it bundles you into a homogeneous group of browsers (users) with the same characters based on demographics like age, location, and sex.

With FLoC, it remains true that advertisers will still be fed information about your browsing history. However, that information will not profile you as an individual, rather as a cohort of the same demographics. So, as an individual, you enjoy greater privacy and anonymity in numbers. Advertisers will know about you (as a group comprising thousands of people) but not as an individual user.

Federated Learning of Cohorts

The FLoC data, as mentioned above, will give advertisers information about a cohort of people with similar behavior. FLoC is a new proposed browser standard, and Google is currently pioneering its development. Other major browsers took the route of completely blocking 3rd party cookies. However, their business model is entirely different from that of Google.

For instance, Apple does not mind blocking 3rd party cookies since its core business is selling hardware (MacBooks, iPhones, iPads). And we dare say they make supernormal profits from that business. Next, we have Mozilla that has fashioned itself as the champion of online privacy and security. It has sold itself that way so successfully and for so long that it has a steady pipeline of donations pouring in to at least keep the bulbs lighting.

On the other hand, we have Google, whose primary revenue stream is money from advertisers. While there have been widespread outcries from the public and cybersecurity experts about how 3rd party cookies are infringing on user privacy and anonymity. Google, in particular, will not warm up to the idea of completely blocking 3rd party cookies. Since doing so will mean advertisers will not be willing to pay top dollar for the Google platforms and use the highly targetted ads.

Blocking 3rd Party Cookies breeds the Deadlier Device Fingerprinting

Google is fronting FLoC as an alternative to blocking 3rd Party Cookies but remains subtle about the threat of the latter to its business model. Instead, it makes a lot of noise about how blocking 3rd party cookies is forcing good advertisers into the terrible behavior of device fingerprinting.

In a press statement, Google said they are “worried because today many publishers rely on cookie-based advertising to support their content efforts…

Overall, we felt that blocking third-party cookies outright without a viable alternative for the ecosystem was irresponsible and even harmful, to the free and open web we all enjoy.”

What’s Device Fingerprinting?

Fingerprinting is a general term used by cybersecurity experts to describe a more dangerous workaround webmasters have to blocked 3rd party cookies. It involves leaking tiny data signals out of the browser when you visit a site. That tiny data can then be used to identify your IP address, window size, operating system, and if your browser supports a Bluetooth controller, among other things. It also has greater application to black hat hackers and state-sponsored spies to eavesdrop on the general public.

Cybersecurity experts (white hat hackers) are in an arms race against blackhat hackers in preventing device fingerprinting from becoming mainstream. The technology has the potential of opening huge wormholes, with the risks far outweighing the benefits of advertisers getting users-data for targetted advertising. Google firmly says that the world does not want advertisers channeling their top dollars towards supporting the development of advanced device fingerprinting technology.

Is Google playing Smart Business or Legitimately Concerned?

Anyone will be at crossroads after weighing the cons of blocking 3rd Party cookies versus the prospects of advanced device fingerprinting technology. At that point you begin to ask yourself; by fronting FLoCing, is Google for privacy and security or it is protecting its bottom lines?

Perhaps reading our 2017 article on Google building a native ad-blocker on its Chrome browser will help you better ponder on that question.

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