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

google removes chrome extensions cookies adid

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.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Product Review

It's not a spy, but you still won't want to friend Facebook's Portal+

Facebook has jumped into the smart home game with the Portal+, a video-calling device featuring an Amazon Alexa speaker and a screen. While it has lots of cool calling features, we’re weary of Facebook taking up counter space in our home.

Keep your phone organized with one of the best file managers for Android

Your smartphone has a limited amount of storage space and all sorts of files tend to accumulate if you let them. To keep things in order and find what you need, you should snag one of the best file managers for Android.
Home Theater

Google Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra: Everything you need to know

Google's Chromecast plugs into your TV's HDMI port, allowing you to stream content from your tablet, laptop, or smartphone directly to your TV. Here's what you need to know about all iterations, including the 4K-ready Chromecast Ultra.

The 100 best Android apps turn your phone into a jack-of-all-trades

Choosing which apps to download is tricky, especially given how enormous and cluttered the Google Play Store has become. We rounded up 100 of the best Android apps and divided them neatly, with each suited for a different occasion.
Home Theater

I’ve seen the 8K TV future, and you should be excited. Here’s why

Samsung set the tech world on fire when it announced it would sell an 85-inch 8K TV in the U.S. along with several 8K screen sizes in Europe. Debates over the validity and value of such a high resolution have continued since, and we're here…

Inferiority is a feature now! Palm's new plan is psychotic

The Palm is a smartphone to reduce your smartphone usage, or a small smartphone for when you don't want to carry your big smartphone. Palm itself doesn't seem sure which it is, but either way, it's a product that's so witless, we're amazed…
Home Theater

Budget TVs are finally worth buying, and you can thank Roku

Not all that long ago, budget TVs were only worth looking at if, well, you were on a budget. Thanks to Roku, not only are budget TVs now a viable option for anyone, but they might even be a better buy than more expensive TVs.

Huawei and Leica’s monochrome lens is dead, so we celebrate its life

The Huawei Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro do not have a dedicated monochrome camera lens, unlike the P20 Pro, and various Huawei and Leica phones before it. It's the end of an era, and also the start of a new one, as Leica has worked on its…

Smartphone makers are vomiting a torrent of new phones, and we’re sick of it

Smartphone manufacturers like Huawei, LG, Sony, and Motorola are releasing far too many similar phones. The update cycle has accelerated, but more choice is not always a good thing.

Do we even need 5G at all?

Faster phones, easier access to on-demand video, simpler networking -- on the surface, 5G sounds like a dream. So why is it more of a nightmare?

Razer’s most basic Blade 15 is the one most gamers should buy

Razer's Blade 15 is an awesome laptop for both gamers, streamers, professionals, and anyone else needing serious go in a slim profile, but its price is out of reach for many games. The new Blade 15 Base solves that problem with few…

Going to hell, again. The Switch makes 'Diablo 3' feel brand-new

I've played every version of Diablo 3 released since 2012, racking up hundreds of hours in the process. Six years later, I'm playing it yet again on Nintendo Switch. Somehow, it still feels fresh.
Home Theater

The Apple AirPods 2 needed to come out today. Here are four reasons why

Apple announced numerous new products at its October 30 event, a lineup that included a new iPad Pro, a MacBook Air, as well as a new Mac Mini. Here are four reasons we wish a new set of AirPods were on that list.

‘Fallout 76’ may have online multiplayer but it’s still a desolate wasteland

"Is Fallout 76 an MMO?" That depends on who you ask. Critics and players often cite its online multiplayer capabilities as a reason it qualifies. Yet calling the game an MMO only confuses matters, and takes away from what could make…