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No Crumbs Allowed: The End of Third Party Cookies

by Alex Carr08/08/2021, ,
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Ever felt like the internet knows too much information about you? Do you feel unsafe and no longer in control of your own privacy online? Do you sometimes wonder why the ads that you encounter now seem to be more and more connected with your digital activities?

Well… you’re not the only one.

On Norton’s 2021 Cyber Safety Insights Report, 78% of responders say they are concerned about their privacy online and 82% of those have taken at least one safety measure to protect themselves from cybercrime.

Due to the increasing need of the public to feel more secured on the internet, tech giants like Google and Apple have done some massive changes these past few years to show their willingness to cater to the critical demand for increased internet privacy. In fact, some of these modifications are being considered as game changers, re-shaping not only the way their services work, but even the future of the internet.

One of the most significant decisions related to internet security that Mozilla, Apple and Google had to make recently was the prohibition of third party cookies on their browsers Firefox, Safari and Chrome respectively. Now, you might be wondering why this is a big deal, or what third party cookies even are, or how this big change will affect you. This blog will answer your burning questions about this issue. So quit wondering, and continue reading!

To better understand the importance of third party cookies, we first need to explain what first party cookies are.

The Magic Cookie

Everytime you go to a website, first party cookies are created by the domain you’re visiting and directly stored on your computer. These cookies track and record your activity within that domain only (e.g. language preference, shopping cart items, username/password). So the next time you visit the same website, it remembers you, delivers a more personalised browsing, which provides a better user experience. Pretty simple and safe, right?

Not until third party cookies come into play.

The Controversial Cookie

Third party cookies are also stored on your computer when you visit a website. However, they are created by an outside domain (not the website you’re currently in) – hence the name ‘third party cookies’. Usually installed on websites by advertising companies, these cookies are used to track your activities across ALL websites that you visit, unlike first party cookies that only track your activity within the same domain.

Third party cookies serve as a very powerful tool in digital advertising. Since it has the capacity to follow you around the web and record the activities you do online (eg. the websites you visit, your personal interests, your online purchases, etc.), advertisers can use those data to create a detailed consumer profile and serve the ads that you would most likely be interested in, across all digital platforms that you access. In fact, third party cookies are now being widely used for cross-site tracking, ad retargeting, data research and analytics. However, if you ask the original creator of digital cookies, Lou Montulli, his mechanism was not supposed to be used the way it is being used today.

“That wasn’t something that we had really anticipated sites doing—although I guess one could have followed the money and could have imagined this happening.”

Going back to third party cookies as it is today, here's a sample scenario:

Jenna searched for a certain laptop model on Buybuy.com but did not make a purchase. The next day, she sees a Buybuy ad of that same laptop model while reading an e-mail. The same ad also popped up while she was browsing a different website (not owned by Buybuy). This means that Buybuy.com uses a third party cookie which recorded Jenna’s activity to serve an ad about their product that she was previously interested in. This is an example of Ad Retargeting.

Brilliant, right? But is it safe?

When the Cookie Crumbles

The security issues surrounding third party cookies has caused the three dominating tech companies to rethink whether they should still allow its use on their browsers (Mozilla, Apple and Google). As a matter of fact, Firefox and Apple have already started gradually eliminating third party cookies on their platforms a few years back.

Here is a simple timeline of most recent tech releases that these two companies executed relating to third party cookies and cross-site tracking:

APPLE
  • 2017Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), a privacy feature, was added to iOS and macOS giving additional security against cross-site tracking.
  • 2020 – ITP was updated to implement full third party cookie blocking across all Apple platforms (cross-site tracking blocked by default in Safari).
  • April 2021ATT (App Tracking Transparency) was included in the iOS 14.5 update to prevent apps (including those made by Apple) from tracking and utilising user data for advertising or any other marketing activities, unless the user gives permission.
MOZILLA
  • 2018 – The company officially announced their plans to improve their browser’s security by changing their approach to Anti-tracking. Not long after that, Firefox 63 was released, featuring Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP).
  • 2019Firefox 65 was released with ETP activated by default, adding Content Blocking controls which gives users three (3) ways to prevent cross-site tracking:
    • Standard (default) – blocks known trackers in Private Windows.
    • Strict – Blocks all trackers known to Firefox (keeping more trackers from following the user).
    • Custom – For those users who want to choose what to block and which to allow, this setting lets them fine-tune their privacy controls.
  • Feb 23 2021Total Cookie Protection was introduced through Firefox 86, preventing tracking companies from using cookies to follow user activities from site to site. To explain Total Cookie Protection, Mozilla used the cookie jar analogy, in which cookies created by a website stays confined in that website’s assigned cookie jar and will not be allowed to be shared with any other website’s cookie jar.

GOOGLE – The Cookie Monster?

With Apple and Mozilla bravely implementing ground breaking rules relating to third party cookies, Google is expected to follow suit. However, with Chrome having the top spot as the most-used internet browser worldwide owning 65.13% Market Share (as of July 2021), their move will not only be the most anticipated, but also the most consequential.

Google’s current predicament is finding a balance between protecting people’s privacy and providing sustainable technologies and tools that could help companies and developers thrive in the business industry. Last year, Google has announced their plan to end its support for third party cookies on 2022 to give ample time for public discussions and further assessments. But just recently, the company took a step back and announced the delay of this big milestone.

Through an official statement, Google said that Chrome will phase out third-party cookies over a three month period, starting in mid-2023 and ending in late 2023.

Though Chrome still supports cross-site tracking and third party cookies by default, users still have the option to clear, enable, and manage cookies by accessing their browser settings.

The Impact of the “Cookiepocalypse”

The level of impact that this major change is actually relative to your identity on the internet.

  • For the general public – a more secure internet awaits, which eliminates the feeling that you’re being watched or your every activity online is being tracked. You only see ads you allow and your data stays where you want them to be.
  • For retailers/business owners – If your ad methods and consumer behaviour analytics rely on tracking people’s movements online and targeting, this may dramatically affect your business. So you might need to speak with your advertising agency as early as now for alternative approaches.
  • For advertisers – As the industry faces a massive challenge ahead, this is the time to look for other solid solutions in order to adapt to the impending changes. Some existing technologies that are worth looking at are the use of:
    • First party cookies
    • Zero Party Data (information intentionally shared by the public like polls, social engagement, surveys, etc.)
    • Accepting the web without third-party cookies and finding effective ways to work around the newly implemented privacy rules of browsers (Apple’s ITP, Mozilla’s ETP and Google’s upcoming Privacy Sandbox).

We hope you find this post useful.

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