Goodbye, tracking cookies? Don't celebrate just yet

Microsoft and Google are both rumored to be working on replacement ad-tracking technologies, but maybe cookies are the lesser of two evils

Is there something in the water? First Google, now Microsoft, is rumored to be working on technologies to replace tracking cookies for online advertising.

The secrecy surrounding these projects is no big deal, but what's bound to be a big deal is if they replace a well-known (if a widely hated) system with a complete unknown.

Word about Google's "AdID" technology started circulating back in September, when USA Today reported about "an anonymous identifier for advertising ... that would replace third-party cookies" for the sake of end-user ad-tracking. The system is allegedly intended to give consumers "more privacy and control over how they browse the Web," and would be used with advertisers that have "agreed to basic guidelines" -- although it's not clear if those guidelines are designed to better favor consumers or advertisers.

USA Today's anonymous source within Google couldn't give more details, in part because the proposal was soon slated to be circulated among "industry participants, government bodies and consumer groups."

Speculation has since raged about what Google is planning and to what end. Some believe Google may be trying to follow the same model Apple created for iOS via its iAd platform -- the latter of which attracted unwanted attention from U.S. regulatory agencies back in 2010 (and which may well have been instrumental in allowing Google to purchase AdMob in the same timeframe).

When Google was pressed for more details, a "Google spokesperson" (according to multiple outlets) would only reply: "We believe that technological enhancements can improve users' security while ensuring the Web remains economically viable. We and others have a number of concepts in this area, but they're all at very early stages."

Those two words, "and others," might well have been a hedge, but perhaps Google knew something that everyone else has just now gotten wind of as well.

Fast-forward to October 2013, where Ad Age reports that none other than Microsoft is allegedly working on its own (cookieless?) ad-tracking technology. The identifier, whatever it would be, is believed to be tied to a specific device -- whether that's a mobile phone or an Xbox console -- and any identifying or behavioral data associated with it would be managed, for better or worse, directly by Microsoft. (It also helps that the proposed new system would allegedly be more effective on mobile devices.)

All this might well be a bone thrown by Google and Microsoft to all the third parties who are growing increasingly uneasy about the future of advertising and marketing on the Web. Efforts to create a Do Not Track standard haven't produced the kinds of robust privacy defenses originally envisioned. When confronted with the real world, such standards proved hopelessly ineffective.

Is it possible to create a whole new technology that gives consumers privacy and advertisers/marketers the intelligence they crave? It might well be, but if the new boss is as bad or worse than the old boss, that would scarcely be progress. As annoying and problematic as tracking cookies have been, at least their behaviors are well-understood, and a whole subindustry has sprung up around blocking them and making people aware of them.

PCWorld's Mark Hachman was uneasy about Google dumping cookies as a tracking mechanism for exactly those reasons. "Let’s just say I tolerate [cookies] as the price of doing business," he wrote, knowing full well that cookies often contain information that are highly personalized and -- even more important -- only comprehensible to the issuing source. Replacing them with something even more opaque is worrisome, especially since "Google has mastered the art of trading useful services in return for your personalized data."

Until Google and Microsoft -- and possibly others -- step up with details of what they're planning, the existing cookie-driven scheme can still be tamed, if only provisionally, with opt-outs of one kind or another.

This story, "Goodbye, tracking cookies? Don't celebrate just yet," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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