Within a year, Google plans to stop supporting so-called third-party cookies, a technology that advertisers have used for decades to track users, in its Chrome browser.

But this doesn’t mean such tracking will simply stop. It would be odd if the tech giant, whose revenue comes mostly from online advertising, voluntarily gave up the ability to collect user data. Instead, third-party cookies will be replaced by a new technology — Google Ad Topics. In fact, Google Ad Topics is already here: the company integrated it into the Chrome browser this summer and recently started to roll it out to the Android operating system.

In this post, we explore how Ad Topics works, where to disable it in the Chrome and Android settings, and what else you can do to avoid being tracked by online advertisers.

A little history: Google Privacy Sandbox and FLoC

Let’s first go back a bit to Google Privacy Sandbox. This is what Google calls the entire initiative to abandon third-party cookies and replace them with different technologies for targeted advertising. Google first started talking about this initiative back in August 2019. As you can see, it’s taken them four years to develop specific solutions for phasing out cookies.

The purpose of this initiative is, on the one hand, to get rid of technology that’s widely perceived as a violation of privacy. On the other hand, Google wants to find a way to continue showing personalized ads to users — maintaining the competitive advantage that made it an internet giant.

If you look at the Wikipedia article on Privacy Sandbox, you’ll find a long list of candidate technologies that Google planned to use to move away from third-party cookies. However, in 2021, a technology called Google FLoC emerged as the primary candidate. Let’s discuss it in more detail.

What is Google FLoC?

FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) was a technology proposed by Google aimed at changing the approach to targeted online advertising — making it more private. Instead of using individual user behavior data to personalize ads, FLoC grouped users with similar interests — meaning similar browsing histories — into “cohorts”. These cohorts were then assigned a unique identifier, which advertisers can use to target their ads.

One of the key advantages in terms of user privacy was that FLoC didn’t send user activity information to Google servers, but processed the data locally — directly on the user’s device.

It’s worth noting that, despite the name, FLoC didn’t actually use federated learning. Its use was initially planned, but it turned out that local computing was good enough.

What is federated learning? It’s a variant of machine learning — an alternative to the centralized learning approach. In centralized learning, data from all devices is uploaded to a central server where the AI model is trained. In federated learning, data isn’t sent to a central server; instead, local models are trained on local data directly on the devices. These devices then exchange the training results, rather than the user data itself, with the server. Based on the results of this local training, a global AI model is built — thus, the local AI models and the global AI model mutually train each other. This is all done to eliminate the need for centralized storage of user data.

As is often the case with attempts to have one’s cake and eat it too, the technology was criticized from both sides. Despite Google’s claims that FLoC is 95% as effective as third-party cookies, advertisers weren’t satisfied with the technology’s performance.

Privacy advocates, in turn, were extremely unhappy that FLoC didn’t adequately address user privacy concerns — and also that millions of Chrome users were included in the testing of FLoC without their consent. However, the main privacy concern regarding Google FLoC was its highly precise methods for categorizing users — the possible number of cohorts exceeded 30,000 — which allowed too much scope for user tracking.

A significant portion of the internet industry quickly took up arms against Google FLoC, including all Chromium-based browser developers — which refused to include FLoC in their products, and Amazon — which disabled FLoC on all its websites. Consequently, just a few months after the testing of FLoC began, Google decided to freeze the project. Already by early 2022, they officially announced the abandonment of FLoC in favor of another technology — Topics API.

What is Google Ad Topics (Topics API)

Google Ad Topics (also known as Topics API) is a technology that Google is currently planning to use to replace third-party cookies for targeted advertising. Ad Topics functions somewhat similarly to FLoC: it also relies on browser history (in the case of Chrome) or app usage (in the case of Android), through which a locally operating algorithm tries to identify user interests.

However, there are significant differences: while FLoC grouped users with similar interests into cohorts with unique identifiers, Topics API only compiles a list of things that interest the user — that is, “topics”.

At the time of writing this article, there were 629 such topics, but this list is constantly being updated, so the number will continue to grow. In Google Ad Topics, each webpage on the internet is associated with a certain topic. The algorithm constantly updates the list of Google topics assigned to the user based on what they’ve visited recently. Here’s how it works:

  • Every week, the user is assigned five topics based on the sites they visited the most that week.
  • Three lists of five topics each are created for the last three weeks.
  • A site that wants to show ads to the user requests the topics assigned to that user from Topics API. The algorithm randomly selects one topic from each of the three lists and provides the site with these three topics for displaying targeted ads.
  • The topics assigned to the user are stored for only three weeks. Older topics are deleted, and a list of five new topics is generated every week.

Since there is an element of randomness in the selection of topics, it seems that identifying a specific user or even a narrow group of users from such information is not so easy. Nevertheless, even soft and gentle tracking is still tracking, and targeted advertising is not to everyone’s taste. The good news is that Google allows you to not only manually configure Ad Topics but also to disable them altogether. For the sake of your privacy, we recommend doing this.

How to disable Google Ad Topics in the Chrome Browser

To disable Google Ad Topics data collection in the Chrome settings, go to Settings → Privacy and security → Ad privacy. The main point of interest on this tab is the first option, Ad topics. Click on this option and turn off the switch in the window that opens.

How to disable Google Ad Topics in the Chrome browser

Where to disable Google Ad Topics in the Android settings

Alternatively, you can go directly to the Google Ad Topics settings by entering the following path in the Chrome address bar:

chrome://settings/adPrivacy/interests

While you’re in this part of the browser settings, it doesn’t hurt to disable two other options on the Ad privacy tab: Site-suggested ads and Ad measurement. That’s it! You’ve successfully disabled Google Ad Topics in the Chrome browser.

Note! Chrome settings are specific to each user profile. So, if you use Chrome with multiple Google accounts on the same computer, you’ll need to disable Ad Topics for each account separately. Go through all your Chrome profiles and repeat the steps above.

How to disable Google Ad Topics in the Android operating system

Disabling Google Ad Topics in the Android operating system must be done directly in your smartphone’s settings. To do this, go to Settings → Google → Ads → Ads privacy → Ad topics and turn off the switch in the window that appears.

How to disable Google Ad Topics in the Android settings

Where to disable Google Ad Topics in the Android settings

Again, since you’re already adjusting the privacy settings, go back to Settings → Google → Ads → Ads privacy and also disable App-suggested ads and Ad measurement. Now, go one step back to Settings → Google → Ads and click on Delete advertising ID.

Please note that this guide is for the standard version of Android. Depending on the manufacturer, smartphone model, and firmware version, the names of settings and paths might vary slightly. If you can’t find them following these instructions, try using the search in the Android settings.

Note! If you disable Google Ad Topics on Android and then receive a notification about “new ad privacy features”, Google Ad Topics might be re-enabled automatically. If that happens, it’s best to go to your smartphone settings and make sure it’s turned off.

How to opt out of personalized ads in the Google Account settings

Still with adjusting your privacy and ad settings, there’s one more thing worth doing: disable personalized ads for your Google account.

To do this, go to the Google’s My Ad Center page. If you haven’t disabled personalized Google ads yet, this page will be covered with colorful category and brand tiles. You can hang around here for a long time, choosing what kind of advertising you want to see.

Google My Ad Centre, where you can manage ad personalization

Google My Ad Center, where you can manage ad personalization

But don’t let the pretty advertising distract you — rather than choosing anything here, it’s best to just turn it all off. What you’re looking for here is a shy little switch at the top right of the page labeled Personalized ads — switch it to Off.

How to disable personalized ads in Google My Ad Centre

How to disable personalized ads in Google My Ad Center

Note! This setting is also specific to each Google account. Therefore, if you use multiple accounts, you need to disable personalized ads separately for each of them.

All set? Congratulations! You’ve now used all the available settings that help you avoid unnecessary attention from both Google and advertisers.

More privacy

But why limit yourself to the anti-tracking options Google provides in the settings of its products and services? It’s a good idea to use additional methods of combating data collection. In particular, we recommend the Private Browsing feature available in all our paid subscriptions — Kaspersky Standard, Kaspersky Plus, and Kaspersky Premium.


#optout #Google #Topics #greater #privacy

Information about what you eat, what you watch, who you text, who you sleep with and where you’re going on vacation has long been a commodity. You basically give it to your browser for free, which then passes it on to companies you have no interest in for them to monetize. If that makes you uncomfortable, you’ve come to the right place — we’re here to help you find a private browser that respects your privacy! But before listing these alternatives, we need to highlight what’s actually wrong with the world’s most popular browser — used by two-thirds of the world’s netizens.

What’s wrong with Chrome privacy?

If you’re interested in the topic of user data collection, you probably already know all about Google, and so you can skip this part. But for those who’ve just joined us so to speak, we’ll briefly explain Chrome’s attitude to user privacy, and why the browser is best avoided.

It’s important to realize that Google gets the lion’s share of its revenue (in 2022 more than 80%) from selling ads. And the basis of such outstanding success of the company in the advertising business is user data. It’s this data that allows advertisers to target audiences far more precisely than through other platforms. That’s because Google can — and does — collect far more of your data than anyone else.

Its sources of user data are wide-ranging: from highly visible products and services used by everyone (search, YouTube, Android, etc.), to invisible ones like Google’s analytical tools, which are used by most websites and applications. Of course, Google’s own browser, Chrome, plays a not-insignificant role in all this.

If you use Chrome, Google can see just about everything you get up to online. And there’s nothing you can do about it: delete as many cookies as you like or browse in Incognito mode, it won’t make a lot of difference — Google will still hoover up data about your internet activity.

And don’t forget that, besides Google, hundreds of other companies are also tracking your actions in cyberspace. And Chrome doesn’t really do much to stop this. But never fear, there are lots of other browsers out there that treat your data far more delicately: they collect less data, link it less rigidly to a concrete identity, and are more proactive in preventing data collection by other parties.

These more privacy-minded alternatives to Chrome are the topic of this post. But since it would take too long to list them all, we’ll focus here on some of the more interesting options — in ascending order of complexity.

Simplest: Microsoft Edge and Apple Safari

Great news for those too lazy to download and install something else: you can get rid of Chrome without lifting a finger. Users of Windows or macOS/iOS just need to switch to the preinstalled browser: Microsoft Edge or Apple Safari, respectively.

Apple Safari

Operating systems: iOS, macOS
Based on: Apple’s own development
Strict privacy mode: no

User security and privacy have been priorities for Apple for some time now. It first took action against third-party tracking of Safari users five years ago. The latest versions of the native iOS and macOS browser block trackers on sites by default, and are able to hide the user’s IP address and report how many tracking elements have been blocked on viewed pages.

And while Safari may not be the most private browser of all (it allows some trackers and has a unique fingerprint), everything works by default right away — you don’t have to configure anything or enable private mode. In short, if you have an iPhone, iPad or Mac, Safari is a great way to increase online privacy with no effort at all.

Pros:

  • Installed on iOS and macOS by default.
  • No setting up required — just open and surf away.

Cons:

  • No versions for other OSes.
  • No strict privacy mode.
  • Average level of anti-tracking protection.

Microsoft Edge

Operating systems: Windows, Android, iOS, macOS, Linux
Based on: Chromium
Strict privacy mode: yes

Following Apple’s example, Microsoft felt obliged to beef up privacy in its own browser. The current version of Edge features highly effective built-in tools for combating web trackers; however, they’re not enabled by default. On the plus side, as before, Windows users don’t have to install anything — the browser comes with the operating system.

There are three main drawbacks to Edge…

First, there’s the fact that it’s based on Google’s open-source browser Chromium, which underpins Chrome — the very browser we’re trying to avoid. Chromium has in the past been caught sending data to Google (to be fair, this was quickly rectified).

Second, Edge sends quite a lot of data to Microsoft’s servers. This isn’t good, of course, but at least Microsoft’s cross-platform tracking abilities are less developed than Google’s.

Third, in the default basic mode, Edge does nothing to deter web trackers. To combat them, you need to enable strict privacy mode in the settings — something that few users will bother to do.

Pros:

  • Installed on Windows by default.
  • Versions exist for all other OSes.
  • Great protection against trackers in strict privacy mode.

Cons:

  • Doesn’t stop trackers at all in basic mode.
  • Based on Google’s Chromium.
  • Collects data for Microsoft.

More complex: Mozilla Firefox and Vivaldi

Now let’s look at a couple of options that require downloading and installing. Note that both are noticeably better at combating web trackers than the native browsers in Windows, iOS and macOS, and at the same time they’re still quite simple and user-friendly, so switching over is relatively painless.

Mozilla Firefox

Operating systems: Windows, Android, iOS, macOS, Linux
Based on: Mozilla’s own development
Strict privacy mode: yes

Mozilla Firefox is the only browser that was developed from start to finish independently of any IT giant (at least directly). Firefox is particularly notable for its in-house web engine. Mozilla gets most of its revenue from the search engines Google, Yandex and Baidu for setting them as default (depending on the region, of course) in the browser settings. But that’s about it: Mozilla doesn’t sell user data and doesn’t try to stop you changing the default search engine in Firefox to something else.

Even in basic mode, Firefox offers great protection against online tracking. And if you crank up the privacy slider to the top, it’s one of the best in the business. Incidentally, in addition to the regular Firefox, there’s also a version for mobile OSes called Firefox Focus, which is even more privacy-focused (available for both Android and iOS).

Pros:

  • Versions exist for all OSes.
  • Decent protection against trackers even in basic mode.
  • Great protection against trackers in strict privacy mode.
  • Mozilla’s own development.

Cons:

Vivaldi

Operating systems: Windows, Android, macOS, Linux
Based on: Chromium
Strict privacy mode: yes

Vivaldi’s developers concentrate primarily on privacy. The brains behind this browser belong to Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner, the legendary creator of Opera (once considered one of the most secure browsers, even having a built-in VPN). Vivaldi boasts a lot of customization options: its settings cover two dozen screens.

The browser has a built-in ad and web-tracker blocker, which does a fine job. Another interesting feature: Vivaldi lets you set different search engines for normal and private windows, which makes it possible to quickly switch between, say, Bing, Google, and DuckDuckGo.

Like Mozilla, Vivaldi earns its crust from user searches in search engines, as well as from placing links to various internet services on the browser’s home screen. At the same time, Vivaldi’s creators openly state that they don’t engage in any kind of user data collection, profiling or tracking. The only thing to bear in mind is that Vivaldi, like Edge, is based on Google’s Chromium engine (see above for potential issues).

Pros:

  • Versions exist for all operating systems except iOS.
  • Great protection against trackers in strict privacy mode.
  • Huge amount of customization.

Cons:

  • Based on Google’s Chromium.

Hardcore: DuckDuckGo, Tor Browser, Mullvad Browser

Lastly, for extreme privacy seekers, there are DuckDuckGo, Tor Browser and Mullvad Browser. Although there’s nothing hugely complex about them, maximum anti-tracking protection comes at the expense of surfing speed and user-friendliness. So if you want total control over your data, you’ll have to put in some effort.

DuckDuckGo

Operating systems: Windows, Android, iOS, macOS
Based on: Mozilla Firefox
Strict privacy mode: maximum privacy by default

The DuckDuckGo browser was created by the team behind the private search engine of the same name, so, as you might guess, that’s the default option. An important detail: you can’t change the default search engine, so it may take some time to get used to both the browser and the search interface.

Among other things, DuckDuckGo helps against user tracking on YouTube: it offers a browsing mode in which it opens all YouTube videos in the native Duck Player.

DuckDuckGo’s developers make no secret of the fact that they earn money from ads in search results, but point out that they do so without tracking or profiling users, based only on the content of search queries: “If you search for cars, we’ll show you ads about cars. It’s that simple.”

Pros:

  • Versions exist for all operating systems except Linux.
  • Great anti-tracking protection.
  • Maximum privacy settings right out of the box.
  • Uses the private search engine DuckDuckGo.
  • Plays YouTube videos in its own Duck Player.
  • Let’s you quickly delete all history and start surfing with a clean slate.

Cons:

Tor Browser

Operating systems: Windows, Android, macOS, Linux
Based on: Mozilla Firefox
Strict privacy mode: maximum privacy by default

Tor Browser is Mozilla Firefox on steroids. Its creators made it as secure as possible against online tracking, with strict privacy mode enabled out of the box. Tor is great at blocking trackers, has a minimally unique fingerprint, and uses the DuckDuckGo search engine by default (can be changed in the settings).

But the main feature is that all traffic in Tor Browser is routed through the Tor (The Onion Router) network — with all the advantages and disadvantages this entails. The chief plus, of course, is maximum anonymity and anti-tracking protection; the main minus is the low surfing speed. For those accustomed to modern connection speeds, browsing in Tor will be quite painful. It’s possible to configure Tor Browser to work without the Tor network, but there’s a better option, which we discuss below.

Tor Browser is available for all desktop operating systems, as well as for Android. But not for iOS: instead, the Tor Project recommends that iPhone owners use the Onion Browser app, made by a Tor-friendly developer.

Pros:

  • Great anti-tracking protection.
  • Versions exist for all operating systems except iOS.
  • Maximum privacy settings right out of the box.
  • Uses the private search engine DuckDuckGo.
  • Lets you quickly delete all history and start surfing with a clean slate.
  • Anonymous connection through the Tor network.

Cons:

Mullvad Browser

Operating systems: Windows, macOS, Linux
Based on: Mozilla Firefox
Strict privacy mode: maximum privacy by default

Mullvad Browser is basically the answer to the above question of how to use Tor Browser without the Tor network. It’s essentially the same browser, only instead of The Onion Router network it offers a secure connection through Mullvad VPN, an anonymous VPN service that even allows users to pay in cash sent by snail mail — all in the name of privacy.

All other features remain in place: excellent protection against web trackers immediately after installation, with the ability to enhance privacy and security using custom settings. Despite this, the connection speeds are still very fast, so surfing with Mullvad Browser doesn’t evoke memories of the dial-up modem era.

Mullvad Browser was launched just recently, so currently it’s available only for desktop operating systems — we’ll have to sit patiently for Android and iOS versions.

Pros:

  • Great anti-tracking protection.
  • Maximum privacy settings right out of the box.
  • Uses the DuckDuckGo search engine by default.
  • Lets you quickly delete all history and start surfing with a clean slate.

Cons:

  • No versions for Android and iOS.

Private surfing: what else to consider

Finally, a few extra tips on how to make internet surfing as private as possible:

  • If a “hardcore” private browser just isn’t your thing, try using several different browsers at the same time, varying the balance between privacy and ease of surfing as per the circumstances.
  • Set the most private browser you use as the default: this way, it will automatically open any link you click on, so you won’t need search and other wonders of technology.
  • Try not to install browser extensions unless absolutely necessary — these are commonly used for tracking (and not only).
  • Use a reliable VPN to secure the connection and hide your IP address.


#choose #browser #spies