Targeted ads have been a huge force in shaping how we experience the internet. Collecting our private info through cookies and trackers, companies feed that to algorithms that determine what we see, when we see it and how often. But, as the internet became less of a wonder and more of a mundane thing, people started to pick its processes apart more, leading to a higher focus on privacy. At this point, any user can decimate the number of ads they see by simply installing Firefox with a few add-ons that block trackers and hide third-party advertisements.
This has sent the ad industry scrambling to reinvent ads, to clean up their image and make them less expensive to serve and more precise. After all, as the number of people who see them shrinks, the ads need to get smarter to survive. I’ve already talked about Google’s FLoC in a previous piece but there’s more changes coming in the future. Today, let’s take a look at the shape of ads to come.
Put the Cookie Down
Deploying any kind of web-changing ideas will be a challenge, especially when its current rulers are doing everything they can to game the system in their favor. The recent antitrust lawsuit against Google, concerning its project Bernanke, highlights how much hold over the market is exerted by just a few companies. Only a giant like Google can afford to do a shake-up in the form of FLoC, while everybody else struggles to innovate.
Most companies proposing new ways to target advertisements are doing so with a full or partial replacement of cookies in mind. One such idea includes using your email or phone number to track your internet activity. Basically, you go on a website which requests you to provide one of the two identifiers — email or number — and you do, because otherwise the website won’t let you in. This identifier is recorded and sent on to third parties which use it to generate your “profile” (UID2) — tracking what you like, what you read, where you are and how they can target you best.
What’s the Key?
A more curious case is Cloudflare’s new bid to destroy CAPTCHA. Yes, those annoying “click on all streetlights” and “pick every square with a vehicle” things, which are usually used to train AI and waste a casual user’s time. Getting rid of this system seems like a good plan, especially if it still comes with a safeguard to prevent DDOS attacks and spamming, the way CAPTCHA kind of does right now.
What Cloudflare suggests is interesting and almost great — ditch CAPTCHA altogether and use “physical authentication devices” instead. This means things like YubiKey or even your mobile’s built-in NFC reader to prove your identity to a website and allow entry. Now, this might set off an alarm for you — surely using a unique security key, even an encrypted one, makes you identifiable and, therefore, trackable across the web? Well, Cloudforce’s answer rings eerily similar to FLoC — the keys aren’t actually unique as in “one per person”. They’re unique per batch of hardware issued, which means you will share the key with, say, 1,000 other people. So, you’re identified as part of a certain flock, to borrow Google’s terminology, and you and other users from this digital family go about web browsing. What this doesn’t account for is group and broad tracking as well as the idea that a single key acquisition could be traced to a user, meaning your encrypted key turns into shackles instead of a path to freedom.
So who needs cookies when you can sell the promise of more efficient browsing and, with it, a less invasive yet still workable way to track people? Certainly, Cloudflare’s new idea is far from the worst out there. It’s not ideal, though, and we’ve been making do with half-solutions for a long time.
With cookies on the way out, the race is on to see what becomes the next big thing in tracking. Realistically, I would put my bets on Google because, even with all the negative reception, the company is too massive to overtake. This means that FLoC or any of its offshoots will only fail if Google decides so or a big enough competitor rises.
For now, as a consumer, you can and should contribute to the hindering of tracking — by using privacy-conscious software, no-track add-ons, or services that don’t track their users.