Security

Google: You know we said that Chrome tracker contained no personally identifiable info? Yeah, about that...

Chocolate Factory clarifies its header for monitoring browser field trials following The Register report


Updated Google has seemingly stopped claiming an identifier it uses internally to track experimental features and variations in its Chrome browser contains no personally identifiable information.

In February, Arnaud Granal, a software developer who works on a Chromium-based browser called Kiwi, claimed the X-client-data header, which Chrome sends to Google when a Google webpage has been requested, represents a unique identifier that can be used to track people across the web. As such, it could run afoul of Europe's tough privacy regulations.

When The Register reported these claims, Google insisted the X-client-data header only includes information about the variation of Chrome being used, rather than a unique fingerprint. "It is not used to identify or track individual users," the ad giant said.

The Register has no reason to believe the X-client-data header was ever used to track and identify people across websites – Google has better ways of doing that. Concern about the identifier has more to do with insufficient disclosure, inaccurate description, legal compliance, and the possibility that it might be abused for identifiable tracking.

The specific language appeared in the Google Chrome Privacy Whitepaper, a document the company maintains to explain the data Chrome provides to Google and third-parties.

Last month, Google's paper said, "This Chrome-Variations header (X-client-data) will not contain any personally identifiable information, and will only describe the state of the installation of Chrome itself, including active variations, as well as server-side experiments that may affect the installation."

That language is no longer present in the latest version of the paper, published March 5, 2020.

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Asked why the change was made, a Google spokesperson said only, "The Chrome white paper is regularly updated as part of the Chrome stable release process."

In place of the old language, seen in this diff image, is a slightly more detailed explanation of the X-client-data header, which comes in two variations, a low-entropy (13-bit) version that ranges from 0-7999 and a high-entropy version, which is what most Chrome users will send if they have not disabled usage statistic reporting.

The Register asked whether the change was made to avoid liability under Europe's GDPR for claiming incorrectly that the X-client-data header contained no information that could be used to personally identify the associated Chrome user. But Google's spokesperson didn't address that question.

In an email to The Register, Granal said, "Knowing a bit the inner-workings on both sides (including Google's lawyers), this is certainly a sensitive issue and it can be costly to Google if the issue is not addressed properly.

"As a user, in the current state, it's important to understand that no matter if you use a proxy, a VPN, or even Tor (with Google Chrome), Google (including DoubleClick) may be able to identify you using this X-Client-Data. Do you want Google to be able to recognize you even if you are not logged-in to your account or behind a proxy? Personally, I am not comfortable with that, but each person has a different sensitivity with regards to privacy.

"I'm sure if you explain in simple words, to national data protection offices that Google can track your computer with a 'permanent cookie' they wouldn't be happy with that at all." ®

Updated to add

After this story was published, a Google spokesperson pointed out the Chrome privacy paper still says the X-client data header doesn't include personally identifiable information, but in different words. The relevant paragraph, we're told, is:

Additionally, a subset of low entropy variations are included in network requests sent to Google. The combined state of these variations is non-identifying, since it is based on a 13-bit low entropy value

Also, we're told our claim that Chrome sends high-entropy variations in the header is incorrect: only low-entropy variations are sent.

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Google has more reasons why it doesn't like antitrust law that affects Google

It'll ruin Gmail, claims web ads giant

Google has a fresh list of reasons why it opposes tech antitrust legislation making its way through Congress but, like others who've expressed discontent, the ad giant's complaints leave out mention of portions of the proposed law that address said gripes.

The law bill in question is S.2992, the Senate version of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which is closer than ever to getting votes in the House and Senate, which could see it advanced to President Biden's desk.

AICOA prohibits tech companies above a certain size from favoring their own products and services over their competitors. It applies to businesses considered "critical trading partners," meaning the company controls access to a platform through which business users reach their customers. Google, Apple, Amazon, and Meta in one way or another seemingly fall under the scope of this US legislation. 

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Brave Search leaves beta, offers Goggles for filtering, personalizing results

Freedom or echo chamber?

Brave Software, maker of a privacy-oriented browser, on Wednesday said its surging search service has exited beta testing while its Goggles search personalization system has entered beta testing.

Brave Search, which debuted a year ago, has received 2.5 billion search queries since then, apparently, and based on current monthly totals is expected to handle twice as many over the next year. The search service is available in the Brave browser and in other browsers by visiting search.brave.com.

"Since launching one year ago, Brave Search has prioritized independence and innovation in order to give users the privacy they deserve," wrote Josep Pujol, chief of search at Brave. "The web is changing, and our incredible growth shows that there is demand for a new player that puts users first."

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Abortion rights: US senators seek ban on sale of health location data

With Supreme Court set to overturn Roe v Wade, privacy is key

A group of senators wants to make it illegal for data brokers to sell sensitive location and health information of individuals' medical treatment.

A bill filed this week by five senators, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), comes in anticipation the Supreme Court's upcoming ruling that could overturn the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing access to abortion for women in the US.

The worry is that if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade – as is anticipated following the leak in May of a majority draft ruling authored by Justice Samuel Alito – such sensitive data can be used against women.

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Big Tech loves talking up privacy – while trying to kill privacy legislation

Study claims Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft work to derail data rules

Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft often support privacy in public statements, but behind the scenes they've been working through some common organizations to weaken or kill privacy legislation in US states.

That's according to a report this week from news non-profit The Markup, which said the corporations hire lobbyists from the same few groups and law firms to defang or drown state privacy bills.

The report examined 31 states when state legislatures were considering privacy legislation and identified 445 lobbyists and lobbying firms working on behalf of Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft, along with industry groups like TechNet and the State Privacy and Security Coalition.

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America edges closer to a federal data privacy law, not that anyone can agree on it

What do we want? Safeguards on information! How do we want it? Er, someone help!

American lawmakers held a hearing on Tuesday to discuss a proposed federal information privacy bill that many want yet few believe will be approved in its current form.

The hearing, dubbed "Protecting America's Consumers: Bipartisan Legislation to Strengthen Data Privacy and Security," was overseen by the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Therein, legislators and various concerned parties opined on the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA) [PDF], proposed by Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).

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Makers of ad blockers and browser privacy extensions fear the end is near

Overhaul of Chrome add-ons set for January, Google says it's for all our own good

Special report Seven months from now, assuming all goes as planned, Google Chrome will drop support for its legacy extension platform, known as Manifest v2 (Mv2). This is significant if you use a browser extension to, for instance, filter out certain kinds of content and safeguard your privacy.

Google's Chrome Web Store is supposed to stop accepting Mv2 extension submissions sometime this month. As of January 2023, Chrome will stop running extensions created using Mv2, with limited exceptions for enterprise versions of Chrome operating under corporate policy. And by June 2023, even enterprise versions of Chrome will prevent Mv2 extensions from running.

The anticipated result will be fewer extensions and less innovation, according to several extension developers.

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Brave roasts DuckDuckGo over Bing privacy exception

Search biz hits back at 'misleading' claims, saga lifts lid on Microsoft's web tracking advice

Brave CEO Brendan Eich took aim at rival DuckDuckGo on Wednesday by challenging the web search engine's efforts to brush off revelations that its Android, iOS, and macOS browsers gave, to a degree, Microsoft Bing and LinkedIn trackers a pass versus other trackers.

Eich drew attention to one of DuckDuckGo's defenses for exempting Microsoft's Bing and LinkedIn domains, a condition of its search contract with Microsoft: that its browsers blocked third-party cookies anyway.

"For non-search tracker blocking (e.g. in our browser), we block most third-party trackers," explained DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg last month. "Unfortunately our Microsoft search syndication agreement prevents us from doing more to Microsoft-owned properties. However, we have been continually pushing and expect to be doing more soon."

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I was fired for blowing the whistle on cult's status in Google unit, says contractor

The internet giant, a doomsday religious sect, and a lawsuit in Silicon Valley

A former Google video producer has sued the internet giant alleging he was unfairly fired for blowing the whistle on a religious sect that had all but taken over his business unit. 

The lawsuit demands a jury trial and financial restitution for "religious discrimination, wrongful termination, retaliation and related causes of action." It alleges Peter Lubbers, director of the Google Developer Studio (GDS) film group in which 34-year-old plaintiff Kevin Lloyd worked, is not only a member of The Fellowship of Friends, the exec was influential in growing the studio into a team that, in essence, funneled money back to the fellowship.

In his complaint [PDF], filed in a California Superior Court in Silicon Valley, Lloyd lays down a case that he was fired for expressing concerns over the fellowship's influence at Google, specifically in the GDS. When these concerns were reported to a manager, Lloyd was told to drop the issue or risk losing his job, it is claimed. 

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It's a crime to use Google Analytics, watchdog tells Italian website

Because data flows into the United States, not because of that user interface

Another kicking has been leveled at American tech giants by EU regulators as Italy's data protection authority ruled against transfers of data to the US using Google Analytics.

The ruling by the Garante was made yesterday as regulators took a close look at a website operator who was using Google Analytics. The regulators found that the site collected all manner of information.

So far, so normal. Google Analytics is commonly used by websites to analyze traffic. Others exist, but Google's is very much the big beast. It also performs its analysis in the USA, which is what EU regulators have taken exception to. The place is, after all, "a country without an adequate level of data protection," according to the regulator.

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End of the road for biz living off free G Suite legacy edition

Firms accustomed to freebies miffed that web giant's largess doesn't last

After offering free G Suite apps for more than a decade, Google next week plans to discontinue its legacy service – which hasn't been offered to new customers since 2012 – and force business users to transition to a paid subscription for the service's successor, Google Workspace.

"For businesses, the G Suite legacy free edition will no longer be available after June 27, 2022," Google explains in its support document. "Your account will be automatically transitioned to a paid Google Workspace subscription where we continue to deliver new capabilities to help businesses transform the way they work."

Small business owners who have relied on the G Suite legacy free edition aren't thrilled that they will have to pay for Workspace or migrate to a rival like Microsoft, which happens to be actively encouraging defectors. As noted by The New York Times on Monday, the approaching deadline has elicited complaints from small firms that bet on Google's cloud productivity apps in the 2006-2012 period and have enjoyed the lack of billing since then.

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