Science

Website reveals if you’re a Chrome user selected to trial a controversial new ad system

A useful website has been created, called ‘Am I FLoCed?’, which lets Google Chrome users know if they are one of the 0.5 per cent of people auto-enrolled in the so-called ‘origin trial’ of a new advertising technology which may eventually replace cookies. 

Google recently announced it was ditching the highly-invasive and controversial  third-party cookies which allow companies to track a user as they surf the web.  

But it also revealed it would be replacing cookies with other, more privacy-centric tools, including one called FLoC, which is controversial in its own right. 

As we learn more about how the system will work, Google has already automatically switched on the new technology in the background of some Chrome users. 

One in every 200 people in some countries, including the US, Australia and India but not the UK, now have FLoC running in the background without their knowledge. 

Millions of people are likely affected, as Google is the world’s most popular browser, with 2.6billion users in 2020. The Origin trial is expected to run to at least July 2021. 

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A useful website has been created, called ‘Am I FLoCed?’ , which lets Chrome users know if they are one of the 0.5 per cent of people auto-enrolled in the so-called ‘origin trial’ of a new advertising technology which will replace cookies

How to check if you are a FLoC guinea pig and stop Google experimenting on you  

FLoC’s origin trial being run by Google is only live on Chrome, so users of other browsers need not worry. 

For Chrome users who are concerned, they can visit Am I FLoCed (amifloced.org) to see if the trial is running in the background on their device.

Simply visit the site and press ‘CHECK FOR FLOC ID’, a big red button, and the site will scan your browser’s code to see if FLoC is active. 

If it is, it will tell you, and if it is not, it will let you know. 

For the 0.5 per cent of people enrolled into the origin trial without knowing, there are limited options to avoid being part of Google’s experiment. 

According to  the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which built the Am I FLoCed site, the only way for enrolledusers to opt out of FLoC is by disabling third-party cookies. 

However, they warn that this action may reset your preferences on some sites and break features like single sign-on.

Third-party cookies are the incumbent currency of the internet, with users accruing them every time they visit or log on to a website. 

Each person’s cookie portfolio paints a picture of who they are, what they do online, their interests, hobbies and desires and this information is used by companies who use the information to set up targeted ads, ensuring adverts are shown to the correct demographic.

This mechanism is why lager drinkers who watch the football and enjoy a take-away see different online adverts to a wine-loving fan of the opera.

But cookies are dying out, with big tech companies getting rid of them as part of an ongoing movement to embrace a more private web. 

Safari and Firefox have already started blocking third-party cookies by default, and Google says it will phase them out over the next two years. 

Chrome is by far the most popular browser, used by around two-thirds of people and last year had an estimated 2.6billion users.  

But Google profits enormously from selling cookies and data to ad companies, and is therefore working on an alternative, with the leading candidate being FLoC. 

FLoC stands for Federated Learning of Cohorts, a method which will prevent a user being followed around the web. 

Instead, people will be put into large groups of like-minded individuals who watch the same content, follow the same activities and use the web in comparable ways. 

These groups will be at least a thousand strong, ensuring each person’s identity is protected, and given a FLoC ID which is generated by an algorithm called SimHash.

Currently there are more than 33,000 different cohorts and a person’s assigned FLoC ID, a number, is changed regularly.

The numerical ID is the only thing which is shared with the websites a user visits.

‘However, large advertisers (like Google) and websites (like… Google) will be able to analyze traffic from millions of users to figure out what the members of a particular FLoC have in common,’ says the non-profit digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which made the Am I FLoCed site.  

‘Those actors may use your FLoC ID to infer your interests, demographics, or past behavior.’

The general premise of FLoC is that it is better than third-party cookies because instead of a person being tracked individually as they browse, they can only be analysed as part of a group, a modern-day manifestation of ‘safety in numbers’.  

But while the tech is refined and established, Google has began trialling it on unwitting customers. 

The EFF says it built ‘Am I being FLoCed’ to let people check if the have ‘been made a guinea pig in Google’s ad-tech experiment’.

FLoC's origin trial being run by Google is only live on Chrome, so users of other browsers need not worry. For Chrome users who are concerned, they can visit Am I FloCed (amifloced.org) to see if the trial is running in the background on their device

FLoC’s origin trial being run by Google is only live on Chrome, so users of other browsers need not worry. For Chrome users who are concerned, they can visit Am I FloCed (amifloced.org) to see if the trial is running in the background on their device

It says that while the final version will inevitably be a polished product, the unwitting participants will have more information harvested than would be done by the final product. 

The EFF says it is ‘happy’ cookies are being restricted but says creating a new tracking technology is ‘the last thing [Google] should do’.

‘FLoC has privacy problems of its own, and it will likely continue to enable discrimination and other harms of targeted ads,’ the group adds. 

‘EFF believes browser developers should focus on providing a private, user-friendly experience without catering to the interests of behavioral advertisers. 

‘We should imagine a better future without the harms of targeted ads—and without Google’s FLoC.’

NHS Covid-19 app update is BLOCKED for breaking Apple and Google’s rules 

A proposed update to the NHS Covid-19 app has been delayed after the Government wanted to introduce a feature which breached privacy guidelines. 

The app is based on a blueprint developed by Apple and Google which was made widely available last year. 

Rolled out to more than half of smartphone owners in England and Wales, the app was due an update on April 8 which would have asked users to upload the location history to the app if they test positive for the coronavirus. 

Currently, the app asks people to check in using QR codes at pubs, gyms, restaurants etc but the information is not distributed and kept confidential. 

The proposed update by the Department of Health and Social Care would have pooled the location data and given the health officials access to it.

This level of location data is something Apple and Google have been steadfastly against since the birth of contact tracing apps at the start of last year. 


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