A literal flock of seagulls (2021)

And I ran, I ran so far away

I just ran, I ran all night and day

I couldn’t get away

Flock of Seagulls — I Ran (So Far Away)

Third-party cookies will no longer be supported by Google Chrome, and a complete phaseout is expected by 2022. Google’s proposed replacement is Federated Learning of Cohorts or FLoC.

In 2019, Google presented the Privacy Sandbox, its vision for the future of privacy on the Web. Google took its proposals to the W3C, the standards-making body for the Web, where they have primarily been discussed in the Web Advertising Business Group, a body made up primarily of ad-tech vendors. Google and other advertisers proposed dozens of bird-themed technical standards:

PIGIN, TURTLEDOVE, SPARROW, SWAN, SPURFOWL, PELICAN, and PARROT.

Each of the “bird” proposals was designed to perform one of the functions in the targeted advertising ecosystem that is currently done by cookies.

How Does FLoC Work?

The project’s Github page:

A browser can group together people with similar browsing habits so that ad tech companies can observe the habits of large groups instead of the activity of individuals. Ad targeting could then be partly based on what group the person falls into.

Browsers would need a way to form clusters that are both useful and private: Useful by collecting people with similar enough interests and producing labels suitable for machine learning, and private by forming large clusters that don’t reveal information that’s too personal, when the clusters are created, or when they are used.

A FLoC cohort is a short name that is shared by a large number (thousands) of people, derived by the browser from its user’s browsing history. The browser updates the cohort over time as its user traverses the web. The value is made available to websites via a new JavaScript API:

cohort = await document.interestCohort();
url = new URL("https://ads.example/getCreative");
url.searchParams.append("cohort", cohort);
creative = await fetch(url);

The browser uses machine learning algorithms to develop a cohort-based on the sites that an individual visits. The algorithms might be based on the URLs of the visited sites, on the content of those pages, or other factors. The central idea is that these input features to the algorithm, including the web history, are kept local on the browser and are not uploaded elsewhere — the browser only exposes the generated cohort.

In short, FLoC boils down your recent browsing activity into a behavioral label and then shares it with websites and advertisers.

However, what it could also do is increase discrimination and predatory targeting by stereotyping and profiling. You become but an aggregate of what people like you are doing.

FLoC Worst Than Cookies?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has stated the biggest issue with FLoC is that it exposes more privacy details about you — not less.

Google has promised that the vast majority of FLoC cohorts will comprise thousands of users each, so a cohort ID alone shouldn’t distinguish you from a few thousand other people like you. However, that still gives fingerprinters a massive head start. If a tracker starts with your FLoC cohort, it only has to distinguish your browser from a few thousand others (rather than a few hundred million). In information-theoretic terms, FLoC cohorts will contain several bits of entropy — up to 8 bits, in Google’s proof of concept trial. This information is even more potent given that it is unlikely to be correlated with other information that the browser exposes. This will make it much easier for trackers to put together a unique fingerprint for FLoC users.

Another Way: Opt-In Trans-Analytics

prefix: trans-

  1. across; beyond.
  2. through.
  • into another state or place.
  • surpassing; transcending.

A word I have used on multiple occasions is trans-analytics or meaning transparency analytics. This allows a user to opt-in to get deals, ads, suggested topics in exchange for sharing attributes of their data. Going further, allowing the user to fit the model that is placed on them by tweaking results, changing behaviors, etc. Users get rewarded by deals, direct links to purchases, online coupons, and the more accurate the model becomes.

The user personally feeds their trans-analytics model like a Tamagotchi, a handheld digital pet that was created in Japan. Then users can take the model with them such as a Swiss Army knife and plug it in when it’s needed.

Ultimately with this option, users get to decide what information to share with each site they choose to interact with. No one needs to worry that their past browsing will be held against them — or leveraged to manipulate them. Every open tab is a new day built on experiences the user has cultivated for themselves.

FLoC: Seagull Technical Standard

The next technical standard of FLoC should be named: Seagull.

Seagulls, particularly the Heermann’s Gull, are relentless kleptomaniacs that have developed many clever ways of stealing the catch of other seabirds. Ever notice that there are always a couple of seagulls hanging around the pelicans while they are hunting and plunging for food? These devious gulls know that the pelican must drain the water from its beak before it can swallow its catch. During that process, the gull will go for any exposed part of the fish and take what it can get until the draining process is completed.

Seagulls also use their flying skills to pluck fish from birds in flight or use truly fascinating maneuvers to pester them until they drop the food which the gull will catch before it hits the water.

As FLoC stands now, the technical specification allows for the aggregation of people like you to give you the sense that you are not being directly monitored. Yet, the ad tech companies who are in charge and when they want to know what to directly target at you, can swoop down, influence banner ads, email context, or content — and then disappear.

Seagulls Also Predict the Weather

Seagulls can sense the small but significant changes in air pressure that indicate a storm is on its way. Just before the storm comes in — usually the day before — you may spot big groups of seagulls flying round in tight circles together. They’re recalibrating their barometers.

FLoC could help bots to send targeted search, ads, content in random possibly destructive ways to the users’ browser. We would be the seagulls that would be flying in directions we didn’t choose to — just because the herd is spooked. And the herd may not even be people like you. You are simply a stereotype. The heard might not even be human.

The EFF said it bluntly: This means a user’s recent history, distilled into a few bits, is “democratized” and shared with dozens of nameless actors that take part in the service of each web page. Users begin every interaction with a confession: here’s what I’ve been up to this week, please treat me accordingly.

Reached out a hand to touch your face

You’re slowly disappearing from my view

‘Pearing from my view

Reached out a hand to try again

I’m floating in a beam of light with you

A beam of light with you -

Flock of Seagulls — I Ran (So Far Away)

The new DNA of ad tracking has been built on the bones of the old with a potential higher degree of prejudice and lack of privacy. Yet, Google starts testing FLoC in earnest this month.

Third-party cookies were bad.

But FLoC is literally for the birds.

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