Today, Google launched an “origin trial” of Federated Learning of Cohorts (aka FLoC), its experimental new technology for targeting ads. A switch has silently been flipped in millions of instances of Google Chrome: those browsers will begin sorting their users into groups based on behavior, then sharing group labels with third-party trackers and advertisers around the web. A random set of users have been selected for the trial, and they can currently only opt out by disabling third-party cookies.
Article by Bennett Cyphers from EFF.
Although Google announced this was coming, the company has been sparse with details about the trial until now. We’ve pored over blog posts, mailing lists, draft web standards, and Chromium’s source code to figure out exactly what’s going on.
EFF has already written that FLoC is a terrible idea. Google’s launch of this trial—without notice to the individuals who will be part of the test, much less their consent—is a concrete breach of user trust in service of a technology that should not exist.
Below we describe how this trial will work, and some of the most important technical details we’ve learned so far.
FLoC is supposed to replace cookies. In the trial, it will supplement them.
Google designed FLoC to help advertisers target ads once third-party cookies go away. During the trial, trackers will be able to collect FLoC IDs in addition to third-party cookies.
That means all the trackers who currently monitor your behavior across a fraction of the web using cookies will now receive your FLoC cohort ID as well. The cohort ID is a direct reflection of your behavior across the web. This could supplement the behavioral profiles that many trackers already maintain.
The trial will affect up to 5% of Chrome users worldwide.
We’ve been told that the trial is currently deployed to 0.5% of Chrome users in some regions—for now, that means Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the U.S. Users in eligible regions will be chosen completely at random, regardless of most ad and privacy settings. Only users who have turned off third-party cookies in Chrome will be opted out by default.
Furthermore, the team behind FLoC has requested that Google bump up the sample to 5% of users, so that ad tech companies can better train models using the new data. If that request is granted, tens or hundreds of millions more users will be enrolled in the trial.
Users have been enrolled in the trial automatically. There is no dedicated opt-out (yet).
As described above, a random portion of Chrome users will be enrolled in the trial without notice, much less consent. Those users will not be asked to opt in. In the current version of Chrome, users can only opt out of the trial by turning off all third-party cookies.
Future versions of Chrome will add dedicated controls for Google’s “privacy sandbox,” including FLoC. But it’s not clear when these settings will go live, and in the meantime, users wishing to turn off FLoC must turn off third-party cookies as well.
Turning off third-party cookies is not a bad idea in general. After all, cookies are at the heart of the privacy problems that Google says it wants to address. But turning them off altogether is a crude countermeasure, and it breaks many conveniences (like single sign-on) that web users rely on. Many privacy-conscious users of Chrome employ more targeted tools, including extensions like Privacy Badger, to prevent cookie-based tracking. Unfortunately, Chrome extensions cannot yet control whether a user exposes a FLoC ID.
Websites aren’t being asked to opt in, either.
FLoC calculates a label based on your browsing history. For the trial, Google will default to using every website that serves ads—which is the majority of sites on the web. Sites can opt out of being included in FLoC calculations by sending an HTTP header, but some hosting providers don’t give their customers direct control of headers. Many site owners may not be aware of the trial at all.
Each user’s FLoC ID—the label that reflects their past week’s browsing history—will be available to any website or tracker who wants it.
There will be over 33,000 possible cohorts.
One of the most important portions of the FLoC specification left undefined is exactly how many cohorts there are. Google ran a preliminary experiment with 8-bit cohort IDs, which meant there were just 256 possible groups. This limited the amount of information trackers could learn from a user’s cohort ID.
However, an examination of the latest version of Chrome reveals that the live version of FLoC uses 50-bit cohort identifiers. The cohorts are then batched together into 33,872 total cohorts, over 100 times more than in Google’s first experiment. Google has said that it will ensure “thousands” of people are grouped into each cohort, so nobody can be identified using their cohort alone. But cohort IDs will still expose lots of new information—around 15 bits—and will give fingerprinters a massive leg up.
The trial will likely last until July.
Any tracker, advertiser, or other third party can sign up through Google’s Origin Trial portal to begin collecting FLoCs from users. The page currently indicates that the trial may last until July 13. Google has also made it clear that the exact details of the technology—including how cohorts are calculated—will be subject to change, and we could see several iterations of the FLoC grouping algorithm between now and then.
Google plans to audit FLoC for correlations with “sensitive categories.” It’s still missing the bigger picture.
Google has pledged to make sure that cohorts aren’t too tightly correlated with “sensitive categories” like race, sexuality, or medical conditions. In order to monitor this, Google plans to collect data about which sites are visited by users in each cohort. It has released a whitepaper describing its approach.
We’re glad to see a specific proposal, but the whitepaper sidesteps the most pressing issues. The question Google should address is “can you target people in vulnerable groups;” the whitepaper reduces this to “can you target people who visited a specific site.” This is a dangerous oversimplification. Rather than working on the hard problem, Google has chosen to focus on an easier version that it believes it can solve. Meanwhile, it’s failed to address FLoC’s worst potential harms.
During the trial, any user who has turned on “Chrome Sync” (letting Google collect their browsing history), and who has not disabled any of several default sharing settings, will now share their cohort ID attached to their browsing history with Google.
Google will then check to see if each user visited any sites that it considers part of a “sensitive category.” For example, WebMD might be labelled in the “medical” category, or PornHub in the “adult” category. If too many users in one cohort have visited a particular kind of “sensitive” site, Google will block that cohort. Any users that are part of “sensitive” cohorts will be placed into an “empty” cohort instead. Of course, trackers will still be able to see that said users are part of the “empty” cohort, revealing that they were originally classified as some kind of “sensitive.”
For the origin trial, Google is relying on its massive cache of personalized browsing data to perform the audit. In the future, Google plans to use other privacy-preserving technology to do the same thing without knowing individuals’ browsing history.
Regardless of how Google does it, this plan won’t solve the bigger issues with FLoC, discrimination, and predatory targeting. The proposal rests on the assumption that people in “sensitive categories” will visit specific “sensitive” websites, and that people who aren’t in those groups will not visit said sites. But behavior correlates with demographics in unintuitive ways. It’s highly likely that certain demographics are going to visit a different subset of the web than other demographics are, and that such behavior will not be captured by Google’s “sensitive sites” framing.
For example, people with depression may exhibit similar browsing behaviors, but not necessarily via something as explicit and direct as, for example, visiting “depression.org.” Meanwhile, tracking companies are well-equipped to gather traffic from millions of users, link it to data about demographics or behavior, and decode which cohorts are linked to which sensitive traits. Google’s website-based system, as proposed, has no way of stopping that.
As we said before, “Google can choose to dismantle the old scaffolding for surveillance without replacing it with something new and uniquely harmful.” Google has failed to address the harms of FLoC, or even to convince us that they can be addressed. Instead, it’s running a test that will share new data about millions of unsuspecting users. This is another step in the wrong direction.
‘The Purge’ by Big Tech targets conservatives, including us
Just when we thought the Covid-19 lockdowns were ending and our ability to stay afloat was improving, censorship reared its ugly head.
For the last few months, NOQ Report has appealed to our readers for assistance in staying afloat through Covid-19 lockdowns. The downturn in the economy has limited our ability to generate proper ad revenue just as our traffic was skyrocketing. We had our first sustained stretch of three months with over a million visitors in November, December, and January, but February saw a dip.
It wasn’t just the shortened month. We expected that. We also expected the continuation of dropping traffic from “woke” Big Tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, but it has actually been much worse than anticipated. Our Twitter account was banned. One of our YouTube accounts was banned and another has been suspended. Facebook “fact-checks” everything we post. Spotify canceled us. Why? Because we believe in the truth prevailing, and that means we will continue to discuss “taboo” topics.
The 2020 presidential election was stolen. You can’t say that on Big Tech platforms without risking cancelation, but we’d rather get cancelled for telling the truth rather than staying around to repeat mainstream media’s lies. They have been covering it up since before the election and they’ve convinced the vast majority of conservative news outlets that they will be harmed if they continue to discuss voter fraud. We refuse to back down. The truth is the truth.
The lies associated with Covid-19 are only slightly more prevalent than the suppression of valid scientific information that runs counter to the prescribed narrative. We should be allowed to ask questions about the vaccines, for example, as there is ample evidence for concern. One does not have to be an “anti-vaxxer” in order to want answers about vaccines that are still considered experimental and that have a track record in a short period of time of having side-effects. These questions are not allowed on Big Tech which is just another reason we are getting cancelled.
There are more topics that they refuse to allow. In turn, we refuse to stop discussing them. This is why we desperately need your help. The best way NOQ Report readers can help is to donate. Our Giving Fuel page makes it easy to donate one-time or monthly. Alternatively, you can donate through PayPal as well. We are on track to be short by about $5300 per month in order to maintain operations.
The second way to help is to become a partner. We’ve strongly considered seeking angel investors in the past but because we were paying the bills, it didn’t seem necessary. Now, we’re struggling to pay the bills. We had 5,657,724 sessions on our website from November, 2020, through February, 2021. Our intention is to elevate that to higher levels this year by focusing on a strategy that relies on free speech rather than being beholden to progressive Big Tech companies.
During that four-month stretch, Twitter and Facebook accounted for about 20% of our traffic. We are actively working on operating as if that traffic is zero, replacing it with platforms that operate more freely such as Gab, Parler, and others. While we were never as dependent on Big Tech as most conservative sites, we’d like to be completely free from them. That doesn’t mean we will block them, but we refuse to be beholden to companies that absolutely despise us simply because of our political ideology.
We’re heading in the right direction and we believe we’re ready talk to patriotic investors who want to not only “get in on the action” but more importantly who want to help America hear the truth. Interested investors should contact me directly with the contact button above.
As the world spirals towards radical progressivism, the need for truthful journalism has never been greater. But in these times, we need as many conservative media voices as possible. Please help keep NOQ Report going.