Google I/O Google, the largest handler of web cookies, plans to change the way its Chrome browser deals with the tokens, ostensibly to promote greater privacy, following similar steps taken by rival browser makers Apple, Brave, and Mozilla.
At Google I/O 2019 on Tuesday, Google’s web platform director Ben Galbraith announced the plan, which has begun to appear as a hidden opt-in feature in Chrome Canary – a version of Chrome for developer testing – and is expected to evolve over the coming months.
When a website creates a cookie on a visitor’s device for its own domain, it’s called a first-party cookie. Websites may also send responses to visitor page requests that refer to resources on a third-party domain, like a one-pixel tracking image hosted by an advertising site. By attempting to load that invisible image, the visitor enables the ad site to set a third-party cookie, if the user’s browser allows it.
Third-party cookies can have legitimate uses. They can help maintain states across sessions. For example, they can provide a way to view an embedded YouTube video (the third party in someone else’s website) without forcing a site visitor already logged into YouTube to navigate to YouTube, login and return.
But they can also be abused, which is why browser makers have implemented countermeasures. Apple uses WebKit’s Intelligent Tracking Protection for example to limit third-party cookies. Brave and Firefox block third party requests and cookies by default.
Augustine Fou, a cybersecurity and ad fraud researcher who advises companies about online marketing, told The Register that while Google’s cookie changes will benefit consumer privacy, they’ll be devastating for the rest of the ad tech business.
“It’s really great for Google’s own bottom line because all their users are logged in to various Google services anyway, and Google has consent/permission to advertise and personalize ads with the data,” he said.
In a phone interview with The Register, Johnny Ryan, chief policy and industry relations officer at browser maker Brave, expressed disbelief that Google makes it sound as if it’s opposed to tracking.
“Google isn’t just the biggest tracker, it’s the biggest workaround actor of tracking prevention yet,” he said, pointing to the company’s efforts to bypass tracking protection in Apple’s Safari browser.
In 2012, Google agreed to pay $22.5m to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it “placed advertising tracking cookies on consumers’ computers, in many cases by circumventing the Safari browser’s default cookie-blocking setting.”
Ryan explained that last year Google implemented a forced login system that automatically allows Chrome into the user’s Google account whenever the user signs into a single Google application like Gmail.
“When the browser knows everything you’re doing, you don’t need to track anything else,” he said. “If you’re signed into Chrome, everything goes to Google.”
But other ad companies will know less, which will make them less competitive. “In real-time ad bidding, where Google’s DoubleClick is already by far the biggest player, Google will have a huge advantage because the Google cookie, the only cookie across websites, will have so much more valuable bid responses from advertisers.”