Google’s ‘Privacy Sandbox’ is a series of proposals that seek to balance the online ad industry’s need to track user behavior while also preserving people’s right to privacy. Google’s solution is to enable some tracking, but in aggregate form.
By Michael Kan
How do you serve a targeted online ad without learning too much about the user’s personal information?
Some might say you can’t. But Google is attempting it with a “Privacy Sandbox,” a new series of proposals that seek to balance the online ad industry’s need to track user behavior while preserving people’s right to privacy.
Google’s goal is to stamp out the most invasive forms of web tracking from identifying your internet presence on the Chrome browser. At the same time, it wants to push the web industry and consumers to accept an online advertising model that still engages in some user tracking, but in a bulk aggregate manner that’s fully transparent.
“We’re exploring how to deliver ads to large groups of similar people without letting individually identifying data…leave your browser,” Chrome engineering director Justin Schuh wrote in a blog post today.
Google has a big interest in preserving today’s online advertising model; the company’s main business is all about serving targeted ads to users by cataloging their activities, which can occur on Chrome. With your web history, the tech giant can figure out all your interests and come up with personalized ads you’ll view on Google Search and YouTube. On the back-end, marketers can then see whether you’ve clicked on the ads.
Third-party websites and ad networks can also serve you tailored ads as you browse the internet by tracking your activities with internet cookies. The only problem? The same technologies can technically map out your web browsing history, which some critics say is tantamount to surveillance. The privacy concerns are why other browsers, such as Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari, have been trying to block invasive web trackers and third-party cookies.
Google is trying to push back on the need to go nuclear on today’s web trackers. “Recently, some other browsers have attempted to address this problem, but without an agreed-upon set of standards, attempts to improve user privacy are having unintended consequences,” Schuh wrote in a separate blog post.
According to Schuh, the cookie blocking will force the web industry to resort to opaque forms of web tracking with no way for users to opt out. This includes fingerprinting,” a tracking technique that involves collecting information about your computer, including the settings and browser version, to identify your internet presence and track which websites you’ve been visiting.
“Unlike cookies, users cannot clear their fingerprint, and therefore cannot control how their information is collected. We think this subverts user choice and is wrong,” Schuh added. He also argued the cookie blocking will derail websites from owners such as media publishers from funding themselves with targeted ads. “Recent studies have shown that when advertising is made less relevant by removing cookies, funding for publishers falls by 52 percent on average,” he said, citing the company’s own advertising data.
To fix the problems, Google’s approach is to block fingerprinting on Chrome, a pledge the company made at its developer conference in May. But the company is refraining from scuttling today’s online advertising model. Instead, the goal is to remove individual identifying information from the process.
Specifically, one proposal in the Privacy Sandbox calls for marketers to observe and serve ads to large groups of people who exhibit similar browsing habits. “It’s possible for your browser to avoid revealing that you are a member of a group that likes Beyoncé and sweater vests until it can be sure that group contains thousands of other people,” Schuh said as an example.
Other proposals revolve around letting marketers continue to measure ad click-through rates, and to detect fraud, but without identifying individual users. However, Google’s proposals have one major blind spot: What about people who don’t want to be tracked at all?
Google didn’t say. For that, you’ll need to tinker with the privacy settings on Chrome, like choosing to block third-party cookies, and also clearing the web activity history on your Google account.
The Privacy Sandbox is still in the early stages and is looking for feedback and support from across the tech industry. You can expect Google to talk about the project for years to come.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com on August 23, 2019.