Cookie conundrum: The loss of third-party trackers could diminish your privacy

Web giants who have been advocating for an end to a nearly 30-year-old technology that follows you around the internet may be motivated more by profit than altruism.

Third-party cookies may be going away in 18 months, but will that achieve Google’s stated intentions of creating a “more privacy-first web?”

Chris Matty doesn’t think so.

In fact, he believes the death of the invasive little trackers could paradoxically make our online identities less secure.

And he believes the motivations of Apple and Google, which have advocated for an end to this form of passive surveillance, are motivated by goals that are less altruistic than they may seem.

Matty is the founder and chief revenue officer of Versium, a business-to-business omnichannel marketing firm that profiles online visitors without using cookies. Instead, it harvests data from various third-party sources in a process that complies with the California Consumer Privacy Act and then uses deterministic algorithms to make what is essentially an educated guess about the identity of visitors.

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Matty believes the end of third-party cookies will be a windfall for technology giants whose reach spans multiple properties.

The losers will be everyone else.

On their own

With third-party cookies out of the picture, marketers will be forced to double down on the data they collect on their own web properties through first-party cookies, which will still be with us.

Those are the trackers you permit to install on your computer when you arrive at a website and are presented with one of those “this site uses cookies” messages.

The thousands of small website owners that now rely on third-party cookies to identify visitors will have to start collecting more data for themselves.

That means more registration pages, paywalls, and prompts to give up information about yourself.

The result will be that “the loss of cookies will actually diminish privacy,” Matty says. “Publishers are going to have to start using gated logins, so they capture an email address.”

This isn’t a problem for the few giants with a vast web footprint.

Think about this: How often do you sign in to Google or Facebook? Almost never.

Once you log in to Google, the company can follow you across its search engines, email service, office productivity applications, media sites, and other outposts in its empire.

Theoretically, it can track you on other properties as well, as long as you’re signed in.

However, independent ad networks won’t have access to this information soon, so Google and Facebook will become even more powerful online advertising brokers.

Meanwhile, independent sites will be pressured to lock down their content more tightly to encourage registration.

The result will be less free information, more walled gardens, and a greater need for people to keep track of usernames and passwords for all the places they visit.

“It will cost marketers more because [the cost per thousand visitors] will grow,” Matty says. “The cost of marketing will go up because information will be controlled by fewer companies.”

An unpopular alternative

Google has proposed an alternative called Federated Learning of Cohorts that replaces third-party cookies with anonymized information about groups of people stored in the browser.

Not everyone thinks that’s such a good idea.

“That approach would put the browser at the center of the advertising equation, and Google, not coincidentally, makes Chrome, the world’s most popular browser,” wrote Adam Tanner, an author of two books about online privacy, in a recent article in Consumer Reports.

Versium and many other identity technology firms are finding ways to reverse engineer identities without using cookies or compromising privacy.

The firm gathers data from multiple sources about people who have given their permission to share it and then uses predictive algorithms to infer identities.

Matty calls this technique “match logic. There are literally hundreds of match codes we can assign with high confidence,” he said. “We can increase match rates from 10% to 90%.”

In a B2B context, that’s valuable in harmonizing personal and business email addresses. About 70% of LinkedIn profiles are tied to personal email addresses; matching them to a list of business addresses can be a shot in the dark.

Matty says that adding third-party, opt-in data can resolve most of those mysteries.

If a marketer has a personal email address, it can be matched to a business address by factoring in other data points like a home address and the nearby population of people with similar names.

“We can look for a physical address and deduce how far they are from a business and so infer that the person works at that business,” Matty says. “There are literally hundreds of match codes we can assign with high confidence.”

This means the end of cookies could trigger an explosion in big data analytics. And guess who owns the most popular suite of analytics tools in the cloud?

Yup, it’s Google.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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