When it comes to online advertising firms, they don’t get much bigger than Google. And so when Google decides that it’s going to make fundamental changes to the way netizens are tracked online, the repercussions of that move are going to be felt far and wide – with one possible ramification being that it’ll become almost impossible to hide your browsing activity online, especially if Google goes ahead with its reported plan to ditch third-party cookies as its primary method of identifying consumers in favor of newer, smarter tracking technology.
USA Today, which broke the story, doesn’t clarify exactly what this technology is or how it might work, merely identifying it as an “anonymous identifier for advertising,” or “AdID”:
“We and others have a number of concepts in this area, but they’re all at very early stages,” said USA Today’s anonymous source.
However, Forbes Adam Tanner suggests that one of these concepts is likely to be a kind of “fingerprinting technique,” that allows websites and browsers to look at certain characteristics of a computer or other device, such as the kind of software and plugins installed, the screen size, fonts, time zone and other identifying features that make each and every machine unique. Using this kind of data, it’s possible to distinguish between just about every device that’s ever been made, assign each one an identifying number, and use that in the same way as a cookie.
From Google’s perspective, the benefits of AdIDs are obvious – they’re far harder to ‘block’ than standard third-party cookies are. Consumers can do virtually nothing, as changing the settings or installing special software on their devices will only make them more unique.
This kind of technique is so difficult to block that The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization at the forefront of the online privacy fight, has previously called for it to be better regulated in its whitepaper “How Unique is Your Web Browser?“:
“Policymakers should start treating fingerprintable records as potentially personally identifiable, and set limits on the durations for which they can be associated with identities and sensitive logs like clickstreams and search terms.”
But any move to regulate this kind of technique would likely be opposed by advertisers, and could well take years to materialize. Incidentally, the news comes on the same day that one of the highest profile privacy groups on the web, the “Do Not Track” group, effectively collapsed. The group has been working to formalize a standard on how online advertisers can collect data about consumers, but its progress over the last two years has more or less ground to a halt. Only last month, one of its most influential privacy advocates from Stanford walked out on the group, and this morning the Digital Advertising Alliance has also given up the ghost.
As reported by The Hill, the industry’s failure to agree on a plan for “Do Not Track” standards means that lawmakers could well step in and do it for them. If so, the Google’s move away from third-party cookies will likely help keep it one step ahead of the regulatory curve for the next couple of years at least.