Out with the cookies, in with the FLoC

By Chris Bonatti, Consultant, IECA of Casper, WY
For IECA’s full newsletter check out https://www.ieca.com/newsletter/2103-IECA_Cyber_Bulletin.pdf

Forward by CyberWyoming: this is important to read if you are a Chrome browser user.

Google has been slowly moving forward with deployment of a new tracking solution called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). FLoC is pitched as a privacy-friendly replacement for cookie-based tracking. Google says that the new technology is needed because of the increased prevalence of technologies (led mainly by Firefox and Safari) to block storage of cookies, or to block advertising outright. While lagging the others, Google’s own Chrome browser has also introduced many anti-tracking features.

FLoC provides a tracking mechanism that Google hopes will transcend the death of cookies. FLoC runs in the browser and uses machine learning algorithms to analyze a user’s browser history, clustering large groups of people with similar interests to anonymize individual users. Google claims that users will benefit from increased individual privacy, while still receiving ads targeted at their “cohort”, which will be more relevant to their interests. Of course, since FLoC is implemented in the browser, it has direct access to your browsing history, and the user gets only what control the browser maker decides to allow. Some critics also say that this is just Google fielding a tracking mechanism that is more difficult to block. More cynical critics point out that FLoC will give Google an advantage over its advertising competitors, because few of their competitors are in a position to carry off browser-based tracking. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is very negative about FLoC, saying that it is a step backward from the more fundamental, privacy-and-user focused changes the web needs.

Undeterred, Google has pushed on with a pilot project. Google’s FLoC implementation is already incorporated into the features available in the Chromium open source browser project. In their own Chrome browser, they have silently enabled FLoC for millions of users in some ten countries. In all, a total of 0.5% of all Chrome users will be Google’s Guinea pigs. Response from the industry so far has been pretty negative. Vivaldi, Brave, DuckDuckGo, and WordPress have all elected to reject FLoC tracking. Even Microsoft has declined to participate… at least for now.

So for the time being, the easiest way to opt out of Chrome’s trial is to switch to another browser. Otherwise, you can determine if your browser is in the trial group by visiting the site ‘amifloced.org’. 

If you find you’re in the trial and would like to opt out, browse to ‘chrome://settings’, then select Privacy and Security on the left, expand Cookies and other site data on the right, and select Block third-party cookies. This setting will (for now) inhibit the FLoC experiment.

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