Many people are rightfully concerned about their privacy and how their data is used online. In a bid to make browsing the web safer for Android users, Google is working on a project it calls the Privacy Sandbox, which will limit how you’re tracked across websites.
Apple implemented a similar change in April 2021, called App Tracking Transparency, where users could opt out of data tracking in iOS apps.
In this article, we’re going to explore the changes Apple made, what Google is doing differently, and what it means for you.
Apple Already Lets You Opt Out of Data Tracking
While some users may enjoy advertisements focused on their particular interests, the notion that developers were allowed to pull your private data to produce personalized ads can feel intrusive to many. At the very least, most can agree that you should at least be allowed to deny third-parties access to your data.
As such, Apple introduced a permissions portal; upon installing and launching an app, you get an opportunity to opt out of data tracking. If you choose to do so, Apple urges that the developers do not attempt to track your data using their own methods. This is a simple yet effective method of keeping your data safe, and a huge step in the right direction.
However, Meta and Google are major ad platforms. This change saw Meta, whose revenue comes almost entirely from ads, projecting a loss of $10 billion by the end of 2022, along with concerns from other platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and Google’s YouTube.
While these changes are necessary and appreciated by users, large companies like Meta could take a major hit in this transition to a more user-friendly internet. So, what is Google doing about it?
What Is Google’s Privacy Sandbox?
In 2019, Google introduced its Privacy Sandbox to much disdain. Following its promise to build a more private web, it argued that blocking the cookies used by many third-parties (and Google itself) to track user data would be detrimental to user privacy. It believed that by eliminating these surface-level gateways to user data, trackers would resort to less agreeable means of collecting said data.
The promises of the Privacy Sandbox felt hollow to many. Over time, Google has managed to smooth the Sandbox out with technologies like Topics and Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), which allows sites to essentially guess user interests and produce personalized ads without actually tracking your data through cookies—an alternative personalized ad solution.
On February 16, 2022, and Google announced on The Keyword its plan to bring the vastly improved Privacy Sandbox to Android. Google states that this will be a multi-year initiative, with intentions to roll out new and improved advertising solutions that do not utilize cross-app IDs or Google’s advertising ID. All of this, along with technologies that will protect user data from being stealthily collected or shared with third-parties without consent.
This will also include safer methods for apps to integrate with ad SDKs. Heading its announcement is the reassurance that Google recognizes the importance of user privacy and believes that, while its efforts have been substantial and well-intended, it hasn’t done enough.
This Doesn’t Mean Google Won’t Serve Advertising
It’s important to understand that these methods implemented by Apple and Google are strictly used to keep third-parties from harvesting your personal data, not eliminate ads altogether. Your Facebook timeline will still be lined with advertisements, and your YouTube videos may still have mid-roll ads.
Google’s previously mentioned Topics proposal, set to replace FLoC, is a tool that will determine several “topics of interest” for you based on your browsing history. These topics could be reading, biking, or video games.
Because topics are generated exclusively on your device without any contact with outside servers, participating websites will generate ads spanning a few of your topics, delivering a personalized ad experience without actually collecting user-specific data. Google assures that even this topic data is only retained for three weeks before old topics are removed.
What Does This Mean for You?
In short, the internet runs on advertisements. It’s where most of Google and Meta’s money comes from. The implementation of greater user privacy measures will simply see third-parties losing access to your personal data. Rather than companies pulling your account and browsing data directly from you into their databases, websites will observe your behavior during a visit and essentially take notes on what interested you.
The browser will keep those notes for a couple of weeks; next time you visit YouTube the browser will know you watched, say, some travel videos, and it will serve you an ad for hiking equipment or something that represents your topics. Your browsing experience will be personalized without the need for a single bit of personal data.
This is only the beginning, but Google pushing it to Android solidifies its faith in this initiative. We could see vastly improved user privacy in the coming years, thanks to Google’s Privacy Sandbox.
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