Chrome’s ‘Topics’ Advertising System Is Here, Whether You Want It Or Not

slack_justyb writes: After the failure of the Chrome user-tracking system that was called FLoC, Google’s latest try at topic tracking to replace the 3rd party cookie (that Chrome is the only browser to still support) is FLEDGE and the most recent drop of Canary has this on full display for users and privacy advocates to dive deeper into. This recent release shows Google’s hand that it views user tracking as a mandatory part of internet usage, especially given this system’s eye-rolling name of “Privacy Sandbox” and the tightness in the coupling of this new API to the browser directly.

The new API will allow the browser itself to build what it believes to be things that you are interested in, based on broad topics that Google creates. New topics and methods for how you are placed into those topics will be added to the browser’s database and indexing software via updates from Google. The main point to take away here though is that the topic database is built using your CPU’s time. At this time, opting out of the browser building this interest database is possible thus saving you a few cycles from being used for that purpose. In the future there may not be a way to stop the browser from using cycles to build the database; the only means may be to just constantly remove all interest from your personal database. At this time there doesn’t seem to be any way to completely turn off the underlying API. A website that expects this API will always succeed in “some sort of response” so long as you are using Chrome. The response may be that you are interested in nothing, but a response none-the-less. Of course, sending a response of “interested in nothing” would more than likely require someone constantly, and timely, clearing out the interest database, especially if at some later time the option to turn off the building of the database is removed.

With 82% of Google’s empire based on ad revenue, this latest development in Chrome shows that Google is not keen on any moves to threaten their main money maker. Google continues to argue that it is mandatory that it builds a user tracking and advertising system into Chrome, and the company says it won’t block third-party cookies until it accomplishes that — no matter what the final solution may ultimately be. The upshot, if it can be called that, of the FLEDGE API over FLoC, is that abuse of FLEDGE looks to yield less valuable results. And attempting to use the API alone to pick out an individual user via fingerprinting or other methods employed elsewhere seems to be rather difficult to do. But only time will tell if that remains true or just Google idealizing this new API. As for the current timeline, here’s what the company had to say in the latest Chromium Blog post: “Starting today, developers can begin testing globally the Topics, FLEDGE, and Attribution Reporting APIs in the Canary version of Chrome. We’ll progress to a limited number of Chrome Beta users as soon as possible. Once things are working smoothly in Beta, we’ll make API testing available in the stable version of Chrome to expand testing to more Chrome users.”

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Shoppers React as Grocers Replace Freezer Doors with Screens Playing Ads

Walgreens and other retailers replaced some fridge and freezer doors with iPad-like screens, reports CNN. “And some shoppers absolutely hate it.”
The screens, which were developed by the startup Cooler Screens, use a system of motion sensors and cameras to display what’s inside the doors — as well as product information, prices, deals and, most appealing to brands, paid advertisements. The tech provides stores with an additional revenue stream and a way to modernize the shopping experience. But for customers who just want to peek into the freezer and grab their ice cream, Walgreens risks angering them by solving a problem that shoppers didn’t know existed. The company wants to engage more people with advertising, but the reaction, so far, is annoyance and confusion.

“Why would Walgreens do this?” one befuddled shopper who encountered the screens posted on TikTok. “Who on God’s green earth thought this was a good idea?”

“The digital cooler screens at Walgreens made me watch an ad before it allowed me to know which door held the frozen pizzas,” said someone on Twitter….

Walgreens began testing the screens in 2018 and has since expanded the pilot to a couple thousand locations nationwide. Several other major retailers are launching their own tests with Cooler Screens, including Kroger, CVS, GetGo convenience stores and Chevron gas stations. “I hope that we will one day be able to expand across all parts of the store,” said Cooler Screens co-founder and CEO Arsen Avakian in an interview with CNN Business. Currently the startup has about 10,000 screens in stores, which are viewed by approximately 90 million consumers monthly, according to the company….

Politifact last month debunked a viral Facebook video that claimed “Walgreens refrigerators are scanning shoppers’ hands and foreheads for ‘the mark of the beast.'”

Avakian insists the tech is “identity-blind” and protects consumers’ privacy. The freezers have front-facing sensors used to anonymously track shoppers interacting with the platform, while internally facing cameras track product inventory…

The items on display don’t always match up with what’s inside because products are out of stock…..

“This is the future of retail and shopping,” Avakian said.

CNN notes that major corporations are backing the company Cooler Screens, which “has raised more than $100 million from backers including Microsoft and Verizon.” But long-time Slashdot reader davidwr points out it’s been done before. “Some gas stations have had video ads at the pump for years now. I boycott those stations on principle.”

And Slashdot reader quonset wonders if we’re one step closer to Futurama’s vision of a world where advertisers enter our dreams.

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Google to Overhaul Ad-Tracking on Android Phones Used by Billions

The Washington Post reports:

Google announced it will begin the process of getting rid of long-standing ad trackers on its Android operating system, upending how advertising and data-collection work on phones and tablets used by more than 2.5 billion people around the world.

Right now, Google assigns special IDs to each Android device, allowing advertisers to build profiles of what people do on their phones and serve them highly targeted ads. Google will begin testing alternatives to those IDs this year and eventually remove them completely, the company said in a Wednesday blog post. Google said the changes will improve privacy for Android users, limiting the massive amounts of data that app developers collect from people using the platform.

But the move also could give Google even more power over digital advertising, and is likely to deepen concerns regulators have already expressed about the company’s competitive practices… It made $61 billion in advertising revenue in the fourth quarter of 2021 alone….

The announcement comes over a year after Apple began blocking trackers on its own operating system, which runs on its iPhones, giving customers more tools to limit the data they share with app developers…. Google contrasted its plan with Apple’s, saying it would make the changes over the next two years, working closely with app developers and the advertising industry to craft new ways of targeting ads and measuring their effectiveness before making any drastic changes.
“We realize that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers,” said Anthony Chavez, vice president of product management for Android security and privacy, in the blog post. “We believe that without first providing a privacy-preserving alternative path such approaches can be ineffective and lead to worse outcomes for user privacy and developer businesses.”
The Post also includes this quote from the chief security office of Mozilla (which began restricting ad tracking in Firefox several years ago). “Google’s two year plan is too long. People deserve better privacy now.”

Read more of this story at Slashdot.