“The opportunities for fingerprinting have been removed,” Apple said of its Safari update, just as Mozilla warned that Chrome’s latest update poses “significant risks.” In March, Google heralded its “privacy first web.” But since then, Chrome has been under attack for data harvesting, tracking and control.
“Chrome is the only major browser that doesn’t offer meaningful protection from tracking,” rival Mozilla told me this week, as the Firefox developer released its stark technical analysis of Chrome’s new user tracking. Days earlier, Apple had launched a thinly veiled attack on Google, with Safari’s “privacy by design” update exposing its stark differences with Chrome when it comes to the dark art of user fingerprinting.
This has been a pivotal year for user privacy. And while Apple’s battle with Facebook over App Tracking Transparency and Privacy Labels has taken center stage, the stark differences between Apple and Google are arguably much more significant.
It’s this principle that should guide you when you download apps onto your phone. If you’re not paying for the app, then it’s generating revenue some other way—put more simply, if you’re not buying the product, then you are the product. Someone is buying you—or your data, to be more precise. It’s this business model which has rocketed Google (and Facebook) into the stratosphere and spawned the vast app industry.
The web is a vast network of interconnected trackers and data brokers, algorithmically measuring and manipulating your behavior. And right at the heart of this is tracking—identifying you as an individual by your digital fingerprint, and then targeting you with ads or manipulative messages based on an AI assessment of how you will respond.
Clearly, if you use a browser provided by an advertising company (Google), then what happens next is unsurprising. More broadly, unless you adjust your privacy settings and select apps and platforms that put privacy first, you can assume that you are being followed (digitally) everywhere you go, that everything you do is being watched.
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This concept of “fingerprinting” is the public internet at its worst. It draws data from multiple sources, tracking, correlating, cross-referencing behind the scenes. I know what someone with your characteristics is likely to buy, and so I push that to you, and measure when you transact. All of which inflates the value of my data to an advertiser.
And there are no lines. That’s why when you google something in one room, your partner sees an ad for that same product in their Facebook feed shortly afterward in another room. It’s a great way to manipulate you, to turn you into a buyer. You share an IP address. You’re matched on a social graph. Clearly, you’re fair game.
Let’s be very clear here. This is not okay. When Apple talks about privacy as a fundamental human right, it’s this kind of data grazing that it has in mind. Apple has been cracking down on cross-site tracking for years with its Intelligent Tracking Prevention. And it has added app tracking into the mix with iOS 14.5. Now it’s going a significant step further with Private Relay, essentially breaking the identity chain so no-one can combine your IP address and other identifiers with your browsing history, not even Apple. This is a move to stop data brokers fingerprinting its users.
Apple’s new Private Relay prevents ISPs and WiFi operators gathering DNS queries, which, it says, “can be used to fingerprint a user and build a history of their activity over time.” It also stops web servers “determining user location… fingerprinting user identity and recognizing users across different websites.” Such tracking still takes place “even when tools like Intelligent Tracking Prevention in Safari” are enabled.
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