Google is again changing the game on the way we’re tracked around the web, and the shift could have significant security and privacy implications. After releasing FLoC, a technology designed to help websites sidestep privacy regulations just last year, the company is now aiming to release an equivalent derivative—a third-party cookie replacement technology called Topics.
Since FLoC was denounced last year, this is yet another attempt by the company to give advertisers a way of targeting ads, allowing them to skirt around basic privacy regulations. With Topics, Google is just twisting user tracking and profiling in different ways than its predecessor FLoC. In an outline on how Topics’ API works, its purpose is made clear:
“Key use cases that browsers want to support […] is interest-based advertising […] a form of personalized advertising in which an ad is selected for the user based on interests derived from the sites that they’ve visited in the past”
Or in other words, unauthorized behavioral profiling while you use your web browser. Let’s take a look at how Topics works, what it means for web browsing, and at an alternative web browser that takes their user’s privacy seriously.
Topics, A Not-So-Off-Topic Technological Capacity
For those that are somewhat unseasoned in web privacy, fear not, because you have definitely encountered it and most likely on a daily basis. Ever been asked whether you accepted the cookies from a web page?
Most of the time when those little windows pop-up, you just click ‘accept’ to get them out of the way so that you can continue whatever you’re doing on that webpage. You should know, however, that cookies are actually small files that websites send to your device and then use to monitor and remember certain information about you. This could be anything from what’s in your shopping cart on an e-commerce site, to your search patterns on google, to your login information. And if you reject the cookie tracking, sometimes, the website won’t work.
Topics essentially has the same reach as third-party cookies. Google claims that some random ‘topics’ might be offered by the system from time to time, which will ‘lessen’ Topics’ chance to share a given topic about your web browsing that will automatically be compromising or identifying. Nonetheless, however, Topics is still picking up what you’re putting down as soon as you open your web browser.
Topics represents the same problem as FLoC, enabling third parties to build profiles, no matter how many privacy mitigations you put around it. Basically acting as Spyware, Topics allows your browser to learn about your interests as you move around the web— very much remaining on-topic as you open and close tabs. The information is then routed to advertisers to start building profiles, grouping users fittingly into categories by ‘topic’, and then using that data as ammo in targeting ads at your specific user profile.
Web Browsing Without Secret Doors
Vivaldi is a browser founded in the belief that a browser should adapt to you and your personal preferences, privacy preferences included. A browser has somewhat become an extension of our personal lives with many things routed to the screen at the onset of the pandemic nearly two years ago, commencing a digital era that has continued ever since.
The Vivaldi browser is unique in that it comes with an ad and tracker blocker built-in, without the need to install an extension. Making protection simply enabled in the privacy settings, the browser also blocks the majority of annoying cookie-consent dialogs via the Vivaldi Cookie Crumbler. This feature works by preventing websites from asking for permission in the first place—and since lack of consent isn’t permission, the websites have to keep their cookies to themselves.
To get a better sense of the company’s fundamental principles, here is what founder and CEO of Vivaldi, Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner, had to say about the current situation regarding FLoC and its new variation Topics:
“We believe that spying on people’s behavior and profiling them is wrong. Period. It is easy to get misled by this new variation of FLoC, since it does appear to have made some positive changes,” said Stephenson von Tetzchner. “That being said, it still violates your privacy, and pretending that behavioral profiling can be okay as long as you hide a few bits of information, or sometimes add false information, is really missing the point that you shouldn’t be profiling in the first place.”
So unlike other web browsers, Vivaldi has the simple baseline principle that you should choose your privacy, not your web browser. With technology advancing at escalating speeds, and no one really knowing what the next loophole big tech companies will come up with, it is good to know that there is a web browser company out there that is looking out for its users.
Taking Back Privacy
As they say—the more you know, the more you know. Maybe to date, you believed that browsing the web on your personal devices was a private affair. But in fact, some web browsers allow these invisible eyes to watch over and document your online movements. For privacy when browsing, look into the Vivaldi browser today.
Disclosure: This article mentions a client of an Espacio portfolio company.