A team of Google Chrome developers have proposed an idea for a 'privacy sandbox' that would protect users from invasive tracking technology, but still let the browser show them targeted ads.
The plan addresses a major problem for Google: it makes its money from advertising, and ads work much better when they're specifically targeted at an individual.
However, individuals aren't too keen on being targeted, and rival browsers (such as Firefox and Vivaldi) are adding ever more features that prevent it happening. Firefox, for example, now blocks all third-party tracking cookies by default, and even sticks Facebook in its own sandbox to stop it following you.
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Google claims blanket banning of cookies actually works against users' interests because it encourages the use of more nefarious tracking techniques like fingerprinting, which uses your device's unique hardware configuration to create a profile that can be used to track your virtual footsteps.
“Unlike cookies, users cannot clear their fingerprint, and this means that even if a user wishes not to be identified, they cannot stop the developer from doing so,” Google said in a blog post. “We think this subversion of user choice is wrong.”
However, Google's intentions aren't entirely altruistic, as it then goes on to explain: “Second, blocking cookies without another way to deliver relevant ads significantly reduces publishers’ primary means of funding, which jeopardizes the future of the vibrant web”
That 'vibrant web', of course, includes Google's many products (Search, Docs, Drive etc), which are provided free for personal users and supported by ads.
Who goes there?
Google has suggested a number of possible workarounds that could help solve this thorniest of problems for individuals and developers.
One possibility, as CNET explains, involves using machine learning within the browser itself to analyze your interests. You are placed in a group of other people with similar interests, and only that data (or 'flock') is shared with advertisers. The advertisers never know your precise browsing activities.
Another is a measure designed to protect users' privacy while preventing ad fraud (false clicks on ads that make it look like it's being seen by more people than it actually is). The browser could issue a 'trust token' that splits users into two groups: trusted and non-trusted. Advertisers and publishers could then use this token to see whether ad fraud is taking place without knowing an individual's specific browsing habits.
There could also be a 'conversion measurement' technology to help advertisers work out which ads are effective (though this would be tricky, because a user might see a ad, then buy the product on a different site).
Finally, it suggests, there could be a 'privacy budget' that allows sites to collect some information about users, but not enough to build a full profile that would identify an individual.
It'll be interesting to see how and if these suggestions work out in the long term, as Google will need to get a lot of other companies on board. It's far more complex than simply blocking cookies, and together, these ideas would mean a total overhaul of online advertising as we know it.
Still, if any organization can manage it, Google is surely the one.