Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could browse the web without having to worry about your actions and activities being tracked, dumped into a profile, and sold to marketers so they can more effectively target you with ads for stuff that might interest you slightly more than other stuff?
While we might never see that day, at least companies like DuckDuckGo are doing their part to combat the latest and greatest in tracking technologies. In this case, that’s Google’s decision to push forward with FLoC — something DuckDuckGo dislikes so much, it’s now adding anti-FLoC tracking capabilities to its Chrome extension. And it’s worth checking out if you want to limit tracking as much possible while you’re in Google’s house.
What the FLoC?
If you haven’t heard of FLoC, I don’t blame you. I can’t count the number of people I know who don’t use any kind of blocking software whatsoever in their browsers; the average person doesn’t know about, nor care about, how they’re tracked around the web.
Google’s decision to block third-party cookies in Chrome and instead switch to a model based around FLoC, or a “Federated Learning of Cohorts,” works like this: Instead of being treated as an individual whose browsing habits (combined with all kinds of other data) could be used to de-anonymize you online, you’ll instead be a nameless individual inside of a larger group of people, or cohort, who share similar characteristics.
“The browser uses machine learning algorithms to develop a cohort based on the sites that an individual visits. The algorithms might be based on the URLs of the visited sites, on the content of those pages, or other factors. The central idea is that these input features to the algorithm, including the web history, are kept local on the browser and are not uploaded elsewhere — the browser only exposes the generated cohort. The browser ensures that cohorts are well distributed, so that each represents thousands of people. The browser may further leverage other anonymization methods, such as differential privacy. The number of cohorts should be small, to reinforce that they cannot carry detailed information — short cohort names (“43A7″) can help make that clear.”
Critics of FLoC argue the technology creates as many privacy problems as it attempts to solve: from what happens when a user’s information (“hidden” in a cohort) is suddenly tied to identifying characteristics, like a login, to the general discriminatory issues that come from being able to target different groups of people in different ways on the web. As the EFF’s Bennett Cyphers writes:
“Even with absolute power over what information can be used to target whom, platforms are too often unable to prevent abuse of their technology. But FLoC will use an unsupervised algorithm to create its clusters. That means that nobody will have direct control over how people are grouped together. Ideally (for advertisers), FLoC will create groups that have meaningful behaviours and interests in common. But online behaviour is linked to all kinds of sensitive characteristics — demographics like gender, ethnicity, age, and income; “big 5” personality traits; even mental health. It is highly likely that FLoC will group users along some of these axes as well. FLoC groupings may also directly reflect visits to websites related to substance abuse, financial hardship, or support for survivors of trauma.”
The ideal solution to this problem is to eliminate tracking altogether — no third-party cookies, no fingerprinting, no cohorts, no nothing. Realistically, you’re going to have to wage this battle yourself, as companies like Google have a vested interest in playing to the middle (or, barring that, being a little more advertiser-friendly, since that’s what helps keep the lights on).
That’s where DuckDuckGo’s extension comes into play. Since Chrome is the only browser that currently uses FLoC — rather, will use FLoC (it’s being tested right now) — all you have to do is make some tweaks to keep yourself away from the tracking tech. If installing an extension is too onerous, DuckDuckGo notes that you can try a few other techniques to disable FLoC (for now):
- Stay logged out of your Google account;
- Don’t sync your history data with Chrome, or create a sync passphrase;
- In Google Activity Controls, disable “Web & App Activity” or “Include Chrome history and activity from sites, apps, and devices that use Google services;”
- In Google Ad Settings disable “Ad Personalisation” or “Also use your activity & information from Google services to personalise ads on websites and apps that partner with Google to show ads.”
I’m not a huge DuckDuckGo user, but I can’t fault the company’s assessment on this one. And then there’s whole “Google testing FLoC without asking users to opt-into the trial” aspect, which also leaves me a bit at a loss for words, privacy-wise. (Disable all third-party cookies to opt out of the FLoC trial, if you’re enrolled — though that’ll probably break your web experience, so you might be better off using a different browser entirely for the time being.)
I don’t envision the future will be FLoC-free, but if you’re a Chrome fan, you can at least steady yourself for the next big push into your privacy. And I can’t wait for someone to make an extension that tells you whether the website you’re visiting is taking advantage of FLoC or opting out.