As ad tech firms test ways to connect Google’s FLoC to other data, privacy watchers see fears coming true

Digiday 10 Jun 2021 04:01
June 10, 2021 by Kate Kaye

Google’s automated cookieless ad targeting method — or Federated Learning of Cohorts — is supposed to protect privacy by providing people with a greater degree of anonymity than the third-party cookie offered. Instead, it may make it quicker and easier for advertising companies to identify and access information about people online.

As privacy and data ethics advocates warned, companies are starting to combine FLoC IDs with existing identifiable profile information, linking unique insights about people’s digital travels to what they already know about them, even before third-party cookie tracking could have revealed it. And identity tech firms say the IDs will help improve the accuracy of systems that detect people’s identities and could even serve as persistent identifiers.

“The more signals we have, the more accurate we are, and FLoC IDs will be among signals we use,” said Mathieu Roche, CEO of identity tech firm ID5. 

Google points to FLoC as a beacon of privacy-safe ad targeting because the method does not track people individually. Instead, it uses machine learning to group people based on the web pages they have viewed. Additionally, the FLoC ID assigned to people is updated weekly, which is meant to filter them into gradually evolving collectives and seemingly limit a FLoC ID’s use as a persistent identifier. Furthermore, because the system works automatically inside web browsers like Google’s Chrome, Google does not precisely define how it assembles cohorts, and the company does not supply labels to reveal what their supposedly opaque codes represent. 

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