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This site tells you if Google’s new ad tech is ‘spying’ on you

April 11th, 2021 at 1:37 PM
Google Chrome

Google vowed a few weeks ago to stop allowing advertisers to track users online with third-party cookies, a move intended to improve user privacy. But Google also said at the time that it would introduce FLoC (or Federated Learning of Cohorts), a new technology in Chrome that will let it improve the anonymity of users while still collecting their browsing data for advertising purposes. Google said at the time that FLoC would be tested in a limited pilot run before it rolls out, but it didn’t provide users with a straightforward way to opt out of testing. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) already criticized Google’s proposed FLoC tracker, arguing that this user behavior surveillance tool can still harm users’ privacy. According to the advocacy group, FLoC is a terrible idea, and Google should cancel the project.

A different report explained how users can opt out of FLoC tracking. It turns out that all you have to do is block third-party cookies in Chrome, something that might not be immediately clear to the user. Google makes no mention of FLoC in the browser’s settings. Now, the EFF has gone one step further by creating a website that tells users whether they’ve been included in Google’s limited FLoC testing.

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The Am I FLoCed? website has just one purpose, and that’s to tell you whether you’re part of the origin trial, which involves 0.5% of users in various countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the United States.

The site would deliver an immediate answer to the question above that might present itself like this, if you’re not “FloCed:”

Google Chrome FLoC Check
Screenshot from EFF’s “Am I FLoCed?” website. Image source: EFF

The website notes that “the Chrome origin trial for FLoC has been deployed to millions of random Chrome users without warning, much less consent.” The trial is supposed to continue into July 2021 and may affect up to 5% of users worldwide. One way to avoid it is to switch to a different web browser if opting out doesn’t feel reassuring enough.

The EFF’s site also explains how FLoC tracking works. Essentially, the tool uses the browsing history to assign users to a group of similar people around the world. This grouping would allow personalized advertising to continue without necessarily targeting individual users. Google won’t use your personal data or share specifics about you and your internet habits with others, and FLoC should add a layer of anonymity. But the EFF thinks people can combine FLoC data with other techniques to fingerprint users.

To get more technical: your browser uses an algorithm called SimHash to calculate your FLoC ID. The system currently uses the list of domains you’ve visited in the past 7 days as input, and recalculates the FLoC ID once a week. The current version of the trial places each user into one of over 33,000 behavioral groups. You can view the code for the FLoC component here. Google has said that it intends to experiment with different grouping algorithms, and different parameters, throughout the trial.

If you’re not willing to ditch Chrome or disable cookies, you might want to check out EFF’s website often to determine if and when Google adds you to the FloC trial. The EFF also published another blog post to explain the downside of using FLoC tech to track users, saying that Google’s initiative is still misleading because the company might convey a false sense of improved security to the user when selling this idea:

This experiment is irresponsible and antagonistic to users. FLoC, with marginal improvements on privacy, is riddled with issues, and yet is planned to be rolled out to millions of users around the world with no proper notification, opt-in consent, or meaningful individual opt-out at launch.

This is not just one more Chrome experiment. This is a fundamental change to the browser and how people are exploited for their data. After all the pushback, concerns, and issues, the fact that Google has chosen to ignore the warnings is telling of where the company stands with regard to our privacy.

The EFF argues that replacing the old cookies-based tracking with the new FLoC tracking isn’t the way to go and shouldn’t be the only option given to users.

The privacy debate will continue to rage on as an increasing number of internet users appear to care about privacy more than ever. Apple is at the forefront of that fight, and its planned iOS 14.5 update will bring a massive change to the user-tracking business. Apps that want user data, Google and Facebook included, will have to ask for permission first. And it looks like many people will block tracking as soon as the prompts start rolling out. At the same time, there’s no denying that online ads pay for free services, including most of Google’s useful apps. That’s a price many people are willing to pay in order to have access to free apps and services.

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Chris Smith started writing about gadgets as a hobby, and before he knew it he was sharing his views on tech stuff with readers around the world. Whenever he's not writing about gadgets he miserably fails to stay away from them, although he desperately tries. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.




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