Google Looking Beyond 'Cookies' to Track People Online
Google, already No. 1 in online advertising, may have plans to further corner the market by abandoning cookies in favor of its own consumer-tracking system.
Instead of tracking internet users' behavior with the tool that's become ubiquitous in the industry, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google is in the early stages of considering a switch to an in-house protocol that would assign each individual user their own "anonymous identifier."
Cookies, for anyone who isn't already familiar, are small pieces of data sent from a website and then stored in a user's web browser. They're often used by advertisers to track a user's browsing history on the web. They can use the information collected by cookies to help make sure users don't see the same ad over and over again, and to show ads that are relevant to the user.
Such a move by Google could make it more difficult for other advertisers to get the data they rely on. But a system that keeps track of individual consumer behavior over time could yield new insights into how users consume goods and media online.
If it comes to pass, many businesses will likely face a tough choice: continue to track user data themselves or pay Google to share it's more detailed and comprehensive data with them. Google's scheme could upend the industry -- or competitors could simply blink before reaching back into that old cookie jar.
As privacy has become a greater issue online, many web users have grown increasingly frustrated by having their online movements tracked by cookies. That is, in part, what spawned the "Do Not Track" movement, which is a way to allow people to choose how their data is used. Safari has blocked cookies by default since 2003. Microsoft recently added a do-not-track feature, turned on by default, to Internet Explorer. Mozilla plans to do the same with Firefox soon.
Google, though, has fought efforts to block cookies on its Chrome browser for years, but touted this potential new system as a way to protect user privacy.
"We believe that technological enhancements can improve users' security while ensuring the web remains economically viable," a Google spokeswoman was quoted saying in the Wall Street Journal report.
That claim is dubious at best. If anything, unique tracking codes for every individual could make it easier to piece together a profile based on what a person buys, reads, watches and does online. Instead of placing you into one of many consumer profiles, Google could create one just for you.
Benjamin Kabin is a Brooklyn-based technology journalist who specializes in security, startups, venture capital and social media.