A person using Google on a laptop computer

DuckDuckGo, a company that makes privacy-focused tools for consumers, has released an update to its existing Google Chrome browser extension. It says the update will counteract a new tracking technology in the browser.

The extension will now block Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC, a feature Google is currently testing that tracks Chrome users by sorting them into groups based on their interests and demographics.

Google has announced that it will eventually stop using third-party cookies and block other companies from using them in Chrome. Those cookies are the tiny files that websites drop in your browser to let companies know about your online activities as you go from one site to another.

Google says it will be rolling out FLoC as a way for the Chrome browser to collect the information needed to target consumers with personalized ads once third-party cookies are eliminated.

More on Privacy

On one hand, privacy advocates welcome the end of third-party cookies because it stops one of the main ways consumers are monitored by a wide variety of companies.

But they argue that the move eliminates one privacy problem by introducing another. Google will continue tracking consumers, albeit in a slightly more anonymous way. And the change seems likely to consolidate more data in Google's hands, hamstringing competitors. The company's already dominant tracking and advertising business could become even more powerful.

"FLoC is simply not good for privacy,” Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo, said in statement. “It does behavioral tracking by default, and there is no such thing as a behavioral tracking mechanism imposed without consent that respects people’s privacy.”

Google announced that FLoC had already been rolled out to some Chrome users, reportedly numbering in the millions, in advance of a wider rollout sometime in the next two years. DuckDuckGo says its browser extension will prevent the technology from working.

Consumers also have other tools to avoid the tracking, and a simple one lets you check to see if FLoC is active on your browser.

Tracking Groups Instead of Individuals

Many websites use cookies to track your behavior. That’s not always bad; cookies are used to make essential features work, such as keeping you logged in to an account or remembering the items you’ve added to a shopping cart.

But many sites use cookies operated by other companies, or third parties, for purposes such as targeted advertising. 

Browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Safari already include settings to let you block third-party cookies. You may get further protections from such tracking as lawmakers and regulators pay more attention to personal data rights.

But the decline of third-party cookies presents a problem for Google and other companies that rely on consumer data to make money on targeted ads. FLoC is part of a suite of changes Google calls the Privacy Sandbox, which the company says will strike a balance between privacy and advertising needs.

“Overall, we felt that blocking third-party cookies outright without viable alternatives for the ecosystem was irresponsible, and even harmful, to the free and open web we all enjoy,” Marshall Vale, Google’s Privacy Sandbox product manager, wrote in a blog post.

Under the new program, Chrome will monitor your web browsing in order to sort you into various groups (or FloCs). It will send information identifying your FLoC back to Google, and websites will be able to check which FLoC you're in. The company says it won’t learn anything about your specific browsing behavior, but it will have enough information to help companies target you with ads.

“Third-party cookies were an accidental artifact of the web that was exploited in bad faith to track users for decades,” says Justin Brookman, direct of privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports. “Getting rid of them is good, but replacing them with technologies that end up with much of the same unwanted tracking isn't really solving the problem.”

FLoC could also introduce anti-trust concerns. When third-party cookies are replaced by FLoC, Google will have a way to track consumers that isn’t available to other companies, which could give it a steep advantage in the advertising business. Other companies may not be able to charge as much for their advertising services because Google has more valuable information.

"We strongly believe that FLoC is better for user privacy compared to the individual cross-site tracking that is prevalent today," a Google spokesperson told Consumer Reports. "The FLoC origin trial is an early but important step toward the Privacy Sandbox's goal of an open web that is both private by default and economically sustainable."

How to Protect Yourself

Google announced in late March that it was testing FLoC on “a small percentage" of users in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the U.S.

The company hasn't provided a way to check if the technology is active on your browser. But there's an outside tool you can use: amifloced.org, which was built by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group.

Google says you won’t be included in the FLoC test if you’ve disabled third-party cookies. But if you turn them off, keep in mind that some functions on certain websites may not work properly. The company says it will introduce a setting to opt out of FLoCs and other related features sometime in April.

To disable third-party cookies in Chrome: Open the three-dot menu icon in the right-hand corner > Privacy and security > Cookies and other site data > Block third-party cookies. (These instructions are for a computer browser. On a phone, find the cookie control under “Site Settings.”)

DuckDuckGo’s browser extension for Chrome is another option to block FLoC. The extension has other privacy features as well; it prevents other kinds of tracking and will set DuckDuckGo as your default search engine. Its search engine doesn't track your searches.

Another solution is to try a different browser altogether. FLoC is being introduced only in Chrome, at least for now, and there are other reasons to consider switching.

Google Chrome collects an immense amount of data about its users. That includes location information, search history, and details about your browsing, data that's linked to your identity and harnessed for third-party advertising.

Popular alternatives include Firefox, Safari, and DuckDuckGo's own Privacy Browser app. All three promise to collect far less personal information.

There's a caveat, though. Chrome has a reputation for being a top-notch browser for protecting your security (i.e., defending against hackers) even if it infringes on your privacy along the way. If you're a high-value target, such as a person who handles highly sensitive information or an executive of a big company, security may be a bigger concern than privacy. You'll need to weigh the trade-off for yourself.