New Google Chrome Targeted Ad Tracking—Here’s How To Stop It

Google Chrome has started alerting users to a new method of ad tracking that it claims is privacy-enhancing called Topics. If you haven’t seen it already, Google has included a pop-up about the Topics API in its Chrome 115 release, and this is rolling out gradually as we speak.

A source of contention for some users is the fact that Google has opted U.S. users into Chrome’s Topics. In the U.S., people received a message saying the technology was now enabled—and the option to remove it is buried within Chrome’s settings.

In the U.K., privacy regulation requires Chrome users to opt in, but critics say Google hasn’t told people exactly what they are agreeing to when they click “opt in to privacy.”

So before you click “got it” or “opt in to privacy” to enable Topics in Chrome, let me explain what this third-party cookie replacement is and why you should consider your options before enabling it.

Google Turns To Privacy Enhancing Technology

Over the last few years, changes such as Apple’s App Tracking Transparency have transformed the advertising landscape forever. People want privacy and don’t want to be tracked to be served advertising.

Against this backdrop, all the browser makers including Google are phasing out third party cookies that track people across websites to serve them ads. Remember, like Facebook, Google’s business model is based on advertising and the firm had to find a way of pleasing its customers—advertisers—while meeting growing user demand.

First, Google introduced FLoC in Chrome, which users and the industry hated.

Google later responded with Topics, which is arguably better than FLoC and allows it to target ads while preserving privacy—according to Google, at least.

What Exactly Is Topics?

Part of Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative, Topics uses a person’s browsing history to assign topics of interest to them. Websites can then ask Chrome via its Topics API what a person’s interests are so they can be served ads.

According to Google, Chrome notes topics of interest as you browse. Topic labels are predefined and include things like Arts and entertainment, Shopping and Sports. Later, a site that you visit can ask Chrome for a few of your topics—but not your browsing history—to personalise the ads that you see.

Chrome is making these technologies available in 2023 so that companies have time to integrate them ahead of Chrome’s planned removal of third-party cookies in 2024.

Better Than Third Party Cookies In Chrome—But Topics Isn’t Perfect

Most people agree this is better than the third party cookies that relentlessly track across the web. Google says Topics and the Privacy Sandbox offers multiple benefits, including on-device processing.

The user’s site history is not available to any external parties, including Google. Additional privacy protections exist, such as showing a different set of topics to different sites for the same user. Google thinks this removes the ability to quickly re-identify people across sites.

While Google says Topics does not expose any sensitive data and stops so-called fingerprinting which could identify the user, privacy advocates suggest it could still be a risk.

Chrome competitor Brave wrote last year that FLoC, Privacy Sandbox, and the Topics API do not improve privacy. “Rather, they’re proposals to make the least private browser slightly less bad,” Peter Snyder, senior director of privacy wrote in a blog.

“The enormous amount of fingerprinting surface already in Chrome…. mean that most Chrome users are already fingerprintable, Topics API or otherwise,” he added.

Cybersecurity consultant Daniel Card says he “applauds the idea of improving the abstraction level used to track Chrome users.”

However, referring to the Chrome pop-up, he adds: “ I think to call this privacy is a bit odd. The wording is a bit deceptive; it’s tracking—of a different nature—under the name of privacy.

Security researcher Sean Wright also expressed concerns. “Instead of several companies now having this data, we have a case of Google being the sole custodian of and it’s likely they will earn some money out of it, via their advertising service.

“It would be ok if they were upfront about it. Instead they appear to be touting this as a means to protect a user’s privacy when it is anything but. We have to remember this is the same company that had personalised adverts on by default in commercial accounts.”

Google Hits Back At Critics

Google accepts it has to change, and its spokespeople have been pretty vocal about how Chrome is adapting to meet the privacy needs of users. “Our goal is to improve privacy and keep the web free and open for all of us,” says Victor Wong, senior director of product management, Privacy Sandbox. “We’re working to deprecate 3P cookies as well as enable businesses, big and small, to reach new users and support content and services that billions of people rely on.”

He points out that the Privacy Sandbox “increases privacy compared to third-party cookies (and other cross-site identifiers)”, while “supporting important use cases for the web including ads measurement and relevance.”

Google Sends Out Alerts About “Ad Privacy Feature”

If you are confused about the Chrome pop-up you received, it’s not surprising.

In Europe, people have to “opt-in” to anything that could impact their privacy, rather than out. It could be argued that Google has been quite sneaky about this. The pop-up reads: “Turn on an ad privacy feature” with the caveat, “We’re launching new privacy features that give you more choice over the ads that you see.”

It’s only then that you discover the real reason for the pop-up: “Ad topics help sites show you relevant ads while protecting your browsing history and identity. Chrome can note topics of interest based on your recent browsing history. Later, a site that you visit can ask Chrome for relevant topics to personalise the ads that you see,” the pop-up reads.

How To Protect Your Privacy

If you don’t want to be part of Topics and the other related features, there are settings you can use to boost privacy in Chrome. You can turn off the new ad tracking features—ie Topics—in your Chrome Settings > Privacy and Security > Ads Privacy and Disable Ad Topics, Site Suggested Ads and Ad Measurement.

If you really care about privacy, you might want to stop using Google Chrome altogether. If you are an Apple user, one of the most private browsers is Safari.

Wright recommends people use browsers such as Firefox—or if you need Chrome’s features, a privacy-focused browser such as Brave. “It is Chromium-based, so a large part of the functionality will work as it does in Chrome, for example browser extensions,” he points out.

Google Chrome remains the most dominant browser in the market with over 3 billion users. This gives Google a lot of power and if that doesn’t sit right with you, you know what to do.


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