Google Will Clamp Down on ‘Opaque Tracking’ and Offer More Transparency to Chrome Users

Planned updates include the ability to delete third-party cookies

Chrome users will be able to delete cookies used for online ad targeting without losing first-party data stored there. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Google
Headshot of Ronan Shields

Google introduced updates to its Chrome web browser earlier this week after the company saw the convergence of Apple’s vocal privacy advocacy and the growing public concern about data privacy affect its brand.

The updates, which are based on three tenets—transparency, control and respect for a users’ choice—include an overhaul to existing features in Chrome that give users the ability to manually block and delete cookies and better distinguish between first- and third-party cookies. This is made possible by the introduction of SameSite that lets Chrome users declare how they want their cookies to be used.

Google’s Chrome team confirmed it will also clamp down on “opaque tracking” methods many ad-tech companies use in lieu of cookies, namely a method known as fingerprinting, or tracking users by aggregating data such as browser type, IP address, time zone and language.

In addition, Google announced today at its annual Developer I/O Conference that it will build a browser extension that offers more transparency to web users on how advertisers use data to profile them and then serve them with specific ads. The announcements come after weeks of speculation about how Google will affect each tier of the industry with the stock price of several publicly listed ad-tech companies suffering during that time.

Google maintains the rollout of all of its planned tools will placate growing public calls to protect Chrome users’ privacy in a way that preserves their access to ad-supported, free content.

Fingerprinting is frowned upon

Google has been watching Apple roll out Intelligent Tracking Prevention in its Safari web browser since 2017—the recently unveiled ITP 2.2 restricts persistent cookies to a single day in some circumstances–and frowned upon the resulting workarounds like fingerprinting employed by many.

This, Google maintains, doesn’t respect users’ choice, and now it wants to implement privacy features that will compel the digital media supply chain to adhere to their wishes, and that’s the thinking behind Google’s planned restrictions on fingerprinting. Ad-tech companies can then create a user ID to track users across sites to better assess when they have been exposed to a targeted ad.

“One way in which we’ll be doing this is reducing the ways in which browsers can be passively fingerprinted so that we can detect and intervene against active fingerprinting efforts as they happen,” reads a blog post co-written by Ben Galbraith, director, product management  and Justin Schuh, director of engineering at Chrome.

Transparency browser extensions

On top of all this and ahead of its Google Marketing Live showcase next week, the Google Ads team announced an upcoming browser extension that will offer more transparency to users about how advertisers use data to profile them and then serve them specific ads.

For instance, if a user is served an ad for a brand, the extension will tell them who paid for the placement plus the additional data segments used to personalize the ad such as their geolocation, browser type and time zone.

“We want to give users more visibility into the data used to personalize ads and the companies involved in the process,” wrote Prabhakar Raghavan, svp, Google ads and commerce, in a blog post.

To better aid this rollout, Google will also build APIs that let third-party ad-tech companies such as ad retargeters and online ad exchanges input data to this browser extension.

“The new information will include the names of other companies that we know were involved in the process that resulted in an ad—for example, ad tech companies that acted as intermediaries between the advertiser and publisher, and companies with ad trackers present in an ad,” Raghavan added.

This planned functionality won’t be restricted to the Chrome browser. Google is also planning to provide the same functionality to Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox users with an extension for both browsers.

“While offering more information privately to individual users is important, we also believe that making this type of information available publicly will help increase transparency at the ecosystem level,” Raghavan wrote. “That’s why we plan to build tools that allow researchers and others to view and analyze aggregated and anonymized data from Google and other providers that elect to use these new APIs.”

@ronan_shields Ronan Shields is a programmatic reporter at Adweek, focusing on ad-tech.