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Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) trial is underway in select areas around the globe. The tracking system has drawn scrutiny for privacy and security concerns. In fact, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) created a website to let people know if they’ve been “FLoCed.” So how does FLoC work and how is this system different than the old cookie-based method? And, most importantly, how do you know if you’ve been “FLoCed”?

SEE: Electronic Data Disposal Policy (TechRepublic Premium)

In March, Google published a blog post announcing the initial rollout of a Chrome “developer origin trial” for its Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) tracking system. The company said the technology “is still in development” and expects FLoC to “evolve based on input from the web community and learnings from this initial trial.”

The FLoC rollout has drawn plenty of pushback in recent weeks. TechRepublic’s sister site, ZDNet, previously reported a WordPress Core proposal to block FLoC as well as browser Brave disabling the tracking system.

In an article titled “Google’s FLoC is a Terrible Idea,” the EFF said that “no one should mourn the death of the cookie as we know it,” stating the third-party tracking tool has “been the lynchpin in a shadowy, seedy, multi-billion dollar advertising-surveillance industry on the Web.”

The EFF also created which the organization says “will try to detect whether you’ve been made a guinea pig in Google’s ad-tech experiment.”

How does FLoC work?

Companies have taken measures to block third-party cookies, including browsers Safari and the Tor Browser, as ZDNet reported last spring. In 2019, Google announced its Privacy Sandbox initiative and outlined challenges associated with blocking cookies, explaining that doing so encourages other techniques a la fingerprinting in which a person’s device or installed fonts “generate a unique identifier” to match people online.

Additionally, without providing an alternative way for publishers to “deliver relevant ads,” blocking cookies reduces funding for publishers and, in turn, “jeopardizes the future of the vibrant web,” Google explained.

Instead, FLoC provides a “viable advertising business model” for publishers and boosts privacy, Google said in the March blog post.

The company said FLoC maintains individual anonymity and allows publishers to present ads to “large groups” of web browsers which it calls “cohorts” who are “defined by similarities in browsing history, but they’re not based on who you are individually.”

Once grouped with “thousands of other people,” Gooogle said the specific group’s identification number is the “only thing provided when requested by a site” explaining this is different from the third-party cookie approach which enables companies to track people “individually across different sites.”

SEE: Snowflake data warehouse platform: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Where is FLoC being tested?

An initial FLoC test is underway involving a “small percentage of users” across the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Brazil, India, Japan, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines with the tech coming to other areas as the trial expands, according to Google. The company said it would introduce a Chrome Settings control in April allowing people to opt-out of Privacy Sandbox proposals including FLoC.