Home & Office

Cookies may disappear, but privacy isn't coming back

Annoying commercial cookies might be on their way out, but it's all because Facebook, Google and Microsoft have better ways to track you.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Many of us hate cookies, those little bits of code left on our computers by Website advertisers. With them, companies and Web sites can track your every move across Web. Our Web browsers let us delete them, but we often forget to clean out our cookie crumb tracks over the Internet. There have been attempts, such as Do Not Track to bring a voluntary standard for online privacy to the Web, but it has come to almost nothing.

So what? Cookies aren't going to matter for much longer anyway.

Peeking Eye

Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are all developing new systems to track your online moves, which rely far less on cookies. Instead of simply dealing with cookies, people who value online privacy are going to have work around at least three new Web use tracking technologies.

Google appears to be switching to AdID, which is short for Anonymous identifier for advertising. While Google has declined to comment on what's what in AdID, it appears that every users of Google services, such as Gmail, Google Chat, and Google+, the Chrome Web browser, and the Android operating system would be assigned an unique ID number. This would enable Google to pull together data for advertisers on not just what users are doing on the Web, but what they're doing with any Google-related Internet service.

Officially, all that Google is saying, according to a Google spokesperson, is "We believe that technological enhancements can improve users’ security while ensuring the web remains economically viable. We and others have a number of concepts in this area, but they’re all at very early stages."

Facebook uses its own user-based cookie system, instead of relying on third-party cookies from ad networks. With it, Facebook knows anytime you visit a site that uses Facebook like buttons. The company then correlates this information that you've already given Facebook, along with data from data providers Acxiom, Datalogix and Epsilon, to paint a very complete picture of your online interests.

Facebook wants more though. The company is reported by the Wall Street Journal to be testing technologies that record "how long a user’s cursor hovers over a certain part of its website, or whether a user’s newsfeed is visible at a given moment on the screen of his or her mobile phone."

This data is then recorded in Hadoop-based big data databases. Once there, it used with your Facebook user data to provide marketers with the information they need to target you with their advertising.

Microsoft wants to replace cookies with unique IDs. Advertising ID was introduced in Windows 8.1 and its associated Windows Store Apps. According to Microsoft, "This ID is per-user, per-device; all of the apps for a single user on a device have the same advertising ID." In other words, with this advertisers can track you not merely when you're roaming the Web, but when you're using any Windows app that has this feature enabled. This is in addition to Microsoft tracking your local PC searches for Bing advertising in Windows 8.1.

If that creeps you out, Microsoft does make it easy to opt out of it. The company states "Customers can easily turn the advertising ID off and on during their Windows 8.1 device setup or anytime afterwards."

So why are all three Internet powers doing this? There are two major reasons. First, each method gives each company more data and control over the data to lure advertisers into using their systems. 

Second, Google and Microsoft's methods let them track you even when you're not using their browsers for your Internet activities. This is especially important to better monetize mobile apps, which frequently rely on Internet connections without the overt use of a Web browser.

And you thought the NSA spying was unnerving! Everyone is doing it. Welcome to the Web, circa 2013. Privacy? What privacy?

Related Stories:

Editorial standards