Google is finally getting rid of cookies. That’s a weird statement to process, considering the company generated many of its billions with the help of internet cookies. But, nonetheless, it’s happening: The cookies are going in the trash, at least on Google’s part, in a wider effort to limit cross-site tracking on the internet.
What are cookies?
Cookies are not the tasty treats of the internet. Quite the opposite, in fact. Internet cookies are files generated while you browse the web to identify your device. They’re like an ID badge you unknowingly wear while surfing from site to site: When you establish a connection with a website, it reads your cookies, and, in turn, generates unique content to suit your past browsing habits.
Cookies contain a lot of information about your internet sessions, including your accounts, items in your carts, pages you’ve visited, how long you spent on those pages, etc. They’re not necessarily nefarious: Websites use them to remember your preferences when returning to a page, for example, including which language you want to use. However, things get dicey when it comes to tracking and targeted advertising, which is the vast majority of what cookies are used for.
Companies rely on cookies to track you across the internet: They want to know everything you do and how you do it, not because they want to steal your identity or build a compromising case against you; rather, they want to pummel you with ads they think you’ll actually click on. If an advertising bot can see that you’re someone who spends a lot of time browsing for sneakers, specifically Nikes, there’s a much better chance you’ll click on a Nike ad than something totally random that has nothing to do with you.
The profiles cookies help generate are often incredibly accurate. While the jury is still out on whether our devices actually listen to us, they honestly don’t have to: Anytime you get an ad for something you were just talking about, chances are it’s because your profile or the profile of the person you’re with is just that “good.”
If you’re an advertiser, or an entity that makes its money from advertising (ahem, Google), cookies are awesome. But if you’re someone that using the internet, cookies are a giant privacy violation. Sure, there are worse things than targeted ads, but being followed around the internet to build a scarily accurate profile of your life isn’t what most of us signed up for here.
Google is saying goodbye to cookies
And, so, we come back to today’s news. Google actually announced back in December its intentions to phase out cookies by default: The plan is, starting today, Jan. 4, to restrict website access to third-party cookies for 1% of Chrome users, with Google calling the approach Tracking Protection. Seeing as Chrome has over three billion users worldwide, that likely means over 30 million Chrome users will see these changes today.
How to tell if Google disabled cookies for you
If you’re one of the 30 million+ users who now have cookies restricted by default, you’ll know if you pay attention to pop-ups. (So, you won’t know, if you’re like me.) Google says that selected users will see an alert the first time they launch Chrome after the change, informing them they’ve been selected for Tracking Protection. The problem is, it’s all too easy to hit the Got it button to dismiss the alert, so you may have no idea you were selected in the first place.
Luckily, Tracking Protection comes equipped with a unique eyeball logo when enabled. If you see that, you’re good to go.
You can disable third-party cookies right now
Even if you aren’t picked to be in Google’s test run, don’t sweat it: The company plans to roll these changes out worldwide by the second half of 2024, so they’ll hit your browser eventually. Plus, you can block third-party cookies manually at any time: Just head to Chrome settings > Privacy and security > Third-party cookies. You can choose to block third-party cookies in Incognito mode, or all the time. Just remember, doing so many break certain websites that rely on cookies to function.
Google is late to the game on cookies
If you follow privacy trends in the tech world, this might seem too little too late. Other companies have already pushed to block cross-site tracking in big ways in recent years. Browsers like Safari and Firefox have cross-site cookie tracking blocked by default. And while not exactly the same, Apple notoriously disrupted the advertising market with iOS 14.5’s App Tracking Transparancy, which forced apps to request your permission to track you. (Answer: Hell no.)
Still, this change is better late than never. Or, is it?
How Google continues to track you post-cookies
Sorry to say, this isn’t the end of Google’s anti-privacy ways. Yes, it’s a step in the right direction, but the company is replacing the old, terrible practice with a new, slightly-less terrible practice.
As Gizmodo’s Thomas Germain explains, Tracking Protection is part of Google’s larger “Privacy Sandbox” project. According to Google, the dream is to limit data scraping, so users can browse the internet more privately, while also still supporting companies and websites in a way that allows them to keep making their content available for free.
In order to accomplish this feat, Google will be the one to collect all the important, money-making data from you. It stores this data in its “sandbox,” grouping individual piece of data with other relevant groups. Google will hand over data to companies as needed, but in a way that preserves your overall privacy: Companies will be able to see your browsing habits align with larger trends, and can advertise accordingly, but won’t be able to tie it to you specifically.
It’s not perfect, but it’s better than how Google has operated these past two and a half decades. Germain argues Google can’t follow in the footsteps of privacy-first companies like Apple, DuckDuckGo, and Firefox, all of whom eliminated third-party cookies without adding more tracking, as Google would need to answer to world governments asking why it would stop sharing data with all of its competitors.
Still, it’d be great if Google could figure out a solution that didn’t involve us trusting it with all our browsing data. In the meantime, I’ll just stick with Safari whenever I can.
Lead Image: Google
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