New Chrome Tracking Scheme is Unwanted

by Noah Frederick |

Browser cookies fulfill a useful purpose for the user: they maintain state for websites, keeping you logged into an account between pages, say. As long as the user has control of who sets cookies when, the tradeoff between utility and privacy hazard is acceptable because cookies can serve the interests of the user. Unfortunately, they are also widely abused for the purposes of tracking people across the Web. One of the easiest ways to accomplish cross-site tracking like this is through third-party cookies, where a cookie is set by an embedded resource on a Web page, such as a social media widget, which can then correlate your visit with a visit to another website that embeds the same widget. Browser vendors are therefore starting to take measures against cross-site tracking via cookies, given that third-party cookies have very few legitimate uses. For example, recent version of Mozilla Firefox implement restrictions on tracking through what they call Total Tracking Protection and Total Cookie Protection. The third-party cookie’s days are numbered.

Because of Google’s existing surveillance reach through Chrome, one of the world’s most popular browsers, as well as through extensive Google-operated Web infrastructure, the obsolescence of third-party cookies decidedly disadvantages Google’s competitors more than it does Google itself. For this reason, Google is eager to pull the plug on third-party cookies and install their own system in its place. For a while, the new proposed system was FLoC, which was widely condemned as a privacy disaster. Google recently announced their latest iteration called the Topics API, which is largely more of the same.

There will no doubt be much debate and posturing over the privacy implications of this new scheme in the coming months, but this is a misdirection that misses the larger problem: that Google is building a feature into a program you use that serves no one’s interests but their own, a model anti-feature. Whether it be through the Topics API or another tracking technology yet to be revealed, they want to use your computer to carry out a surveillance regime targeted at you. Such user-hostile functionality doesn’t belong in any software, let alone a program dubbed a “user agent.”

Google is, in fact, incapable of taking an ethical course of action because respecting the privacy and autonomy of computer users represents an existential threat to the surveillance capitalist model in which Google is firmly entrenched. No “solution” Google develops in the aftermath of third-party cookies will be palatable. If Google’s mass surveillance programs are to be tempered, it must be via effective regulation, and in the meantime, by public pressure through the refusal to install and use the Chrome browser.