The Struggle For Data Privacy

In a recent blog post, Google revealed that while they remain committed to meeting their aim of eliminating third-party cookies by 2022, they do not wish to transition to user-level alternatives like universal identifiers, citing user data privacy concerns. Microsoft has also announced new privacy measures at their recent Ignite conference, including end-to-end encryptions on their Teams platform. 

Facebook, on the other hand, has locked horns with Apple over the latter’s new, stronger privacy update giving users greater control over who can track their data. This comes hot on the heels of Facebook’s own privacy policy update for WhatsApp that faced a considerable amount of backlash, causing the implementation to be pushed ahead by a few months. 

Google, Microsoft & the shift towards increased data privacy

Cookies are small packets of data that sites can leave in a user’s browser, and these become third party cookies when set by domains other than the site that is currently being accessed. They serve as a digital trace for advertisers and companies to form an interconnected network that serves as a profile with extensive details about the user’s interests, purchasing behaviour, etc. 

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Google intends to remove these third party cookies from their products. Instead, Google intends on using tools that have been determined as ‘privacy preserving’ tools — one of which is its Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). Unlike individual user level tracking, FLoC agglomerates multiple users’ data with similar browsing patterns into larger flocks or groups. This way, instead of targeted advertisements based on individual data retention, advertisers would be able to cater to the larger groups of similar data instead, thus ensuring greater privacy for individual users. 

FLoCs are just a single part of what Google calls its Privacy Sandbox initiative, a combination of multiple efforts and updates aimed at reforming the current adtech ecosystem and ‘charting a course towards a more privacy-first web’. These updates, however, will take time, with a proposed timeline of two years for the removal of cookies. 

In the meantime, Mozilla has recently announced that its Firefox browser now comes with a Total Cookie Protection (TCP) mode. A mode that confines cookies to the site of their creation unless the user indicates otherwise, thus preventing cross-website tracking and rendering the cookies useless.

Microsoft’s new slew of announcements included a major privacy update to its Teams video conferencing software. One-to-one Team calls would now be protected by end-to-end encryptions, with the same security arriving for all other call modes soon. This gives Microsoft a key edge over rival Zoom, which has frequently suffered from concerns about privacy and security, even leading to the term ‘Zoom-bombing’. 

Facebook vs Apple

Research reveals that seven out of 10 smartphone apps shared personal data with third-party tracking companies like Facebook. Apple recognised this as a privacy violation for their users, and to help mitigate this, announced a new App Tracking Transparency feature as part of an upcoming iOS update. This feature would enable users to opt-out of the feature that gives apps the ability to track and access their data for targeted advertisements and forces developers to introduce greater transparency in how user information is used. 

Apple is no stranger to improved privacy features, having added Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) to their Safari browser in 2017, which uses machine learning to target and effectively prevent cross-site data transfers and cookies. Apple CEO Tim Cook has also openly criticised the negative impact of targeted ads, especially Facebook’s business model, linking it with real-world consequences of political polarization and the spread of conspiracy theories.

Antitrust lawsuits & suspicion

Google’s push towards FLoC and greater privacy does seem to be a move in the right direction. There are, however, some that think otherwise. The move has been criticised for not stopping the tracking process entirely but rather restricting it to proprietary software that Google controls, further tightening their significant grip on the digital ad space. This has led to antitrust lawsuits filed against the company in the UK. Likewise, Apple is facing antitrust investigations in the US, EU and the UK. 

David B. Shrestha
I have a Bachelor's degree in Journalism, and I enjoy writing about tech policy, cryptocurrency, and the latest advancements in artificial intelligence.

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