Google’s “Privacy Sandbox” is still ad tracking tech, the EFF warns


A hot potato: The hotly debated “Privacy Sandbox” tech is Google’s solution to the universal hate reserved for third-party cookies and behavioral advertising. The Sandbox brings several new technologies including the Topics API, which would classify users in interest-based categories by carefully watching what they do and where they go on the web.

According to Google’s plans, Privacy Sandbox will be tested throughout 2024 before replacing third-party cookies in Chrome. The Topics API, which the Mountain View corporation introduced after the pushback against the previously proposed Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), is a solution that will provide Google with even more control over advertising in its own browser.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which called FLoC a “terrible idea,” is still describing Topics as a user-tracking technology designed to empower Google’s behavioral advertising. The new API has been available in Chrome since September 2023, and is now employed to put users into almost 500 advertising categories listed on GitHub.

If a user searches for “student loans,” “financing,” “parenting” or other advertising-related topics, Chrome would inform the Topics API about their supposed online interests. A website supporting Privacy Sandbox would then ask Chrome for users’ interests, providing the means to show related and tailored advertising in the browser.

Google is calling its new tracking solution a “Privacy” Sandbox because it is supposedly designed to respect users’ privacy, as it doesn’t (or it shouldn’t) track individual URLs and saves (or should save) users preferred “topics” on a local device. Google calls this tech “enhanced ad privacy,” the EFF observed, but the company will still “gobble up your browsing habits to serve you ads.”

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Mountain View just wants to preserve its bottom line in a more privacy-conscious technology world, the non-profit group said, centralizing the tracking tasks on itself and replacing “dozens” of companies that are doing the same through third-party cookies. While the Topics API “somewhat” improves over the FLoC tech proposed in 2019, the EFF said, it still is a bad idea designed to serve users ads and has nothing to do with real privacy.

Alternative browsers such as Mozilla Firefox or Apple Safari have already provided additional protections against tracking cookies since 2019, and neither of those browsers will likely implement something like Privacy Sandbox in the future. The EFF says that third-party browsers are a better solution than Chrome to preserve privacy online, while Chrome addicts can still tweak or disable Privacy Sandbox features by following the instructions provided by the organization. For now, at least.



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