Google’s cookie ban is a faux privacy win

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There’s an enormous upheaval and major shift is about to happen on the internet, after Google announced it will ban so-called third-party cookies in a new drive towards privacy with its Chrome browser.

On the face of it, this looks like a massive win for us consumers. Cookies are the little bits of software that live in your browser’s cache and tell advertisers what we do on the internet.

You’d be surprised at how many important personal details can be gleaned from your browsing behaviour, especially if you visit shopping or ecommerce websites.

These cookies follow us all over the internet, gathering reams of data about our online behaviour that frankly they should never have had access to.

On the face of it, and given the recent personal data scandals, Google seems to be playing its part for privacy by banning them through its market dominating Chrome browser. But please don’t think Google is doing this without making sure nothing will dent its monumental and amazingly lucrative online advertising business.

Google is banning third-party cookies, but it is certainly not curtailing its own ability to do exactly what these cookies have always done: spy on us.

Google makes the vast majority of its money from its advertising through search results. There is no way it’s going to let some pesky privacy issue get in the way of its billions of dollars of profits from data mining the actual people who use its technologies.

Don’t mistakenly think that you are Google’s customer if you use Android or Chrome or Search or Meet, or any of its products. The real customer is the advertiser, who spends vast amounts of money for the targeted advertising Google is able to offer by… spying on us.

Of course, the argument goes – and you get it from Facebook and all the other social media giants – that those cookies have made our life easier. We haven’t had to log in to websites and continuously remember a password – which was the original purpose of cookies. But as Google grew its world-dominating search advertising, and then started giving Android away to smartphone manufacturers, cookies evolved to do much more. They became the little spies that tracked our every move and reported back to the mothership.

But all of these are deceptions and lies. Cookies have made it easier for browsers to save our passwords, but they’re real task now is… to spy on us. I don’t know how I can more plainly I can explain this. Cookies are bad. Both for the real-world calorie-conscious and the online espionage versions.

When I was in Europe – in that long-forgotten distant age of intercontinental aeroplane travel – I noticed that the EU’s privacy protection legislation, called General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), required all advertising cookies to be identified. I stopped trying to count after the fifth screen on my iPhone listing all the cookies and trackers.

Companies you and I have never heard of are snooping on our online behaviour so they can sell us advertising.

This move is long overdue, but it will only be meaningful if Google takes the same medicine it is giving other, third-party advertisers. In the meantime, I’ve ditched Chrome for a privacy-conscious browser (Safari or Edge or Firefox) and search engine (DuckDuckGo). I recommend you do the same.

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail.

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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