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Google wants to reinvent the browser cookie – should you be thrilled or terrified?

Last week, USA Today delivered an under-reported scoop that could affect us all, whether we realize it or not. Google is apparently planning to institute a new type of user tracking technology known as AdID. According to the report, AdID would still let Google track you, but there would be some changes. For any of you that plan on remaining diligent Web users, it’s important to know what those changes mean, and how they could affect you.

Before we get into all that, it needs to be said that USA Today’s story is apparently based on a single anonymous source who’s “familiar” with Google’s plan. So none of this is written in stone just yet. That said, Google hasn’t denied the report’s accuracy. And the advertising industry – which will be more significantly affected by this change – is taking the news seriously. And so will we for the purposes of delving into what the future may hold.

AdID, in a nutshell

Here’s what we think we know so far about AdID. For starters, the apparent goal of AdID is reportedly to replace browser cookies, the little pieces of code that advertisers and Web analytics companies automatically download to your browser when you visit a website. Cookies (and similar technologies, like tracking pixels) are the reason that, when you search for, say, “Weber grill” on Google, you see ads for Weber grills on sites you visit afterwards.

The stuff you browse on your laptop and the stuff you browse on your smartphone could all be lumped into one big profile on you.

The problem with cookies, from the perspective of Google’s advertising business, is that there are a ton of them. Different cookies from different companies collect different things about your online activity. With AdID, the data about you would only go into a single bucket, making your profile much more valuable to advertisers.

Another issue with cookies is that more and more people are blocking them. Most modern Web browsers now include a Do Not Track (DNT) function, which blocks tracking cookies automatically. (Google Chrome has DNT functionality, but it’s more difficult to use than on Firefox, Safari, or Internet Explorer.) It’s likely that third-party companies will add in anti-AdID options – if the technology takes off – but the good news for privacy-conscious users is that they may not have to.

AdID: The good

AdID is meant to be more user-friendly in a number of ways. First, advertisers who want to tap into the AdID ecosystem will reportedly have to meet “basic guidelines” respecting user privacy. Further, AdID will give users “more privacy and control over how they use the Web.” It’s hard to say exactly what that means at this point because the details are so vague, but the report goes on to explain that all Web users’ identities will be anonymized through the AdID system.

On top of that, AdID may reset every year. The Web activities you engage in this year won’t be piled on your Internet activity of next year, which would be good for increasing privacy in the long term. And finally, Google may let users create a separate AdID for “private” browsing only. That means your me-time Web activity won’t leak over into your more public Internet life, which could happen now unless you take the necessary steps to prevent tracking during your “incognito” sessions.

AdID: The ugly

Anonymous though AdID may make you, some speculate that Google will try to connect your AdID to your real ID through the use of its various products, like Gmail or Google Plus. This is good for advertisers, as it would allow them to track users across any device – so the stuff you browse on your laptop and the stuff you browse on your smartphone could all be lumped into one big profile on you. Again, the data would be anonymous, but you would be “watched” by the AdID system everywhere you go – something a few people might find disconcerting, considering the news recently.    

The worst part of AdID – the anti-privacy part – is alive and well in your browser.

It’s worth noting that just because your AdID will apparently be anonymous, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely anonymous, nor does it mean that Google can’t re-link your real identity to your Web activity identity and then pass that data along to certain three-letter government agencies. If this is technically possible, it could allow for skilled hackers to gain access to the AdID system and swipe a bunch of information about you that you wouldn’t want strangers to know. That’s a big “if,” and nothing to get cold sweats about. But as with any digital system that contains sensitive data, it’s worth a mention.

Betrayed by you browser

Another thing privacy-minded users must consider is that your browser itself can be used to identify you. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a tool called Panopticlick, which shows exactly what kind of information your browser is revealing about you and your computer, and just how “unique” that combination is. The more unique, the easier it would be for someone or some thing (be it an advertising network, or whatever) to identify you, and link you to certain Web activity. In other words, the worst part of AdID – the anti-privacy part – is alive and well in your browser.

The long track

Google has the power to lead the online advertising industry down a new path, so it thinking up ways to give us consumers more control over the data we create every time we search or visit a website is welcomed news. But that does not mean we are free of online tracking, nor does it mean that you should expect anything close to true privacy on the Web. The only way to achieve that, from now until eternity, is to log off entirely. And good luck with that.

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