Okay, I’ve been planning to make a post on web privacy for a while now, and I took so long because I wanted to put together something super-convincing, but I’ve about had it by now with Google Chrome and have to get something out.
Chances are, you’re using Chrome while you’re reading this. If not, I congratulate you. Do make sure that you’re not using a Chrome-based browser that’s just as bad, though, because there are a lot of those.
Now, why am I so mad at Chrome?
Well, it all comes down to this: Chrome has a conflict of interest when it comes to privacy. Google Chrome is owned by Google, which makes the vast majority of its money through its advertising service. Their ads are so successful because they have oodles of data about nearly everyone and can use that data to target those to whom a given ad will appeal.
But that means that Google doesn’t want its browser to be privacy-focused; after all, the more personal data Chrome protects, the less Google receives about you and the less money they make. Google’s entire business model is based on selling your interests to advertisers.
When it comes to privacy, you’ve probably heard more about cookies than anything else. But do you really know what they are?
The problem is that cookies can follow you across websites. If Google had an ad on this page, for example (they don’t and never will), they could see not only your cookies for this site but also for every other site you’ve visited that has Google ads. This massive amount of data to compare allows Google to accurately reason out precisely who you are and what you’re looking for.
Now, Chrome does allow you to block third-party cookies, the ones that are the problem. But do you know how to do that? If you do, you’re one of the lucky few. Chrome hides the feature very well. After all, third-party cookies are their big moneymakers.
So what? I block ads.
I used ads as an example, but Google also has a widespread analytics platform. Most sites will have a Google Analytics script tracking their users, with only a mention en passant in their privacy policies. (and who reads privacy policies?)
With these analytics, Google can still track you. And it’s not just Google; Facebook like buttons, Twitter embeds, etc.
This is the one that recently made me mad. I knew about third-party cookies, but I didn’t know about FLoC. FLoC stands for Federated Learning of Cohorts, and it’s Google’s new alternative to third-party cookies. The basic idea is that your Chrome or Chromium-based browser will automatically detect certain information about you (like what sites you visit) and place you in a group with a few thousand other similar users. The group you’re in will then be visible to the sites you visit.
What does this let sites do? Well, in a way, the same thing that third-party cookies did, but this way, Chrome already does all the hard work. People are already sorted. All websites need is to decide which FLoC IDs to target. FLoC gives Google just as much control over your data as third-party cookies.
But that’s not what makes me mad. What makes me mad is that Google has started to test this feature in users’ browsers without informing them. Right now, 0.5% of users have it enabled, and they’re considering ramping it up to 5% of all users. Eventually, I assume they’ll be rolling it out to everyone.
The worst thing is that there’s no opt-out; the only way to exclude yourself from the study is to disable third-party cookies (which I already recommend you do).
Why should I care?
Here’s my biggest problem with Google Chrome: it’s not just that they don’t care about your privacy; making your experience non-private is literally what they get paid to do.
Whether or not these specific instances apply to you, do you want to put yourself in the hands of a company that has shown they don’t care? This is not the end. Google will do all it can to get your data, and it will develop more programs like FLoC if it needs to. I, for one, do not want my data to be sold to the highest bidder, especially when free alternatives are as good, if not better.
I use and highly recommend Brave. It blocks all ads (including Youtube ads!), trackers, third-party cookies, and (starting three days ago) FLoC by default and allows you to enable other privacy features.
Also, I love their philosophy on ads: they know that blocking ads to avoid trackers removes revenue from sites that need it, so they allow users to opt-in (that’s a key word to note when it comes to privacy) to privacy-respecting ads (that don’t track you). A large portion of the profits from these ads are donated back to the sites you visit the most.
Since the sites have to register as Brave creators, the money often ends up being donated to nonprofits like Wikipedia, Khanacademy, and Archive.org (I’ve also signed up this site). I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer Wikipedia to get the money from my ads rather than Google.
Also, if you’re worried that you’ll miss out on your favorite features, worry no longer! Brave is based on Chromium, so it has all of the features you know from Chrome except ads.
Quite honestly, I’m considering switching away from Chrome altogether and using Firefox. I’ve been looking at it, and it’s got almost everything Chrome does. I do like Brave, though.
Anyway, I’d definitely recommend either of those two. I’ve heard Opera is good too.
Whatever you choose, please stop using Chrome. There are so many good options out there, so why not pick one with your best interests in mind?
- Why You Shouldn’t Use Google Chrome After New Privacy Disclosure (Forbes)
- Goodbye, Chrome: Google’s Web browser has become spy software (Washington Post)
- Am I FLoCed? (tool from the Electronic Frontier Foundation)
- Millions of Chrome users quietly added to Google’s FLoC pilot (Malwarebytes Blog)
Banner image from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.