DuckDuckGo Chrome Extension Now Blocks Topics and FLEDGE, Google’s new Tracking and Targeting Methods

Filed under DuckDuckGo News on
  • Google has created new tracking and behavioral ad targeting methods in Chrome called Topics and FLEDGE, which it plans to automatically enable for many Chrome users.
  • You can use the DuckDuckGo Chrome extension to block Google Topics and FLEDGE in Chrome or you can manually disable the “Privacy Sandbox trials” setting in Chrome.
  • Topics replaces Google FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), Google’s previous tracking method in Chrome, which we also blocked.
  • While Topics differs from FLoC in a number of ways, it still suffers from the same fundamental privacy issues of automatically sharing information about your online behavior with websites and tracking companies without your consent.
  • FLEDGE replaces cookie-based ad “re-targeting”, which means you’ll continue to have creepy ads following you around the Web if you don’t block it.

If you're a Google Chrome user, you might be surprised to learn that you may soon be automatically entered into Google's new tracking and ad targeting methods called Topics and FLEDGE. Topics uses your Chrome browsing history to automatically collect information about your interests to share with other businesses, tracking companies and websites without your knowledge. FLEDGE enables your Chrome browser to target you with ads based on your browsing history. These new methods enable creepy advertising and other content targeting without third-party cookies. While Google is positioning this as more privacy respecting, the simple fact is tracking, targeting, and profiling, still is tracking, targeting, and profiling, no matter what you want to call it.

What can I do?

1. Don't use Google Chrome! Google Topics and FLEDGE will only exsist in Google Chrome. On iOS or Android we suggest you use our DuckDuckGo mobile browser, which offers best-in-class privacy protection by default when searching and browsing. Plus, we recently launched more app features into beta that will better protect your online privacy, like Email Protection and App Tracking Protection for Android. On desktop, we just launched the DuckDuckGo app for Mac into beta (Windows coming soon) so you can skip the Chrome headache completely and use ours by joining our waitlist (which is moving quickly).

2. Install the DuckDuckGo Chrome extension. In response to Google automatically turning on Topics and FLEDGE in Chrome, we've enhanced our Chrome extension to block Topics and FLEDGE interactions on websites, stopping these new forms of targeting. This is in addition to the all-in-one privacy protection that our extension offers, including private search, tracker blocking, Smarter Encryption, and Global Privacy Control. The Topics and FLEDGE blocking addition is included as of version 2022.4.18 which should auto-update, though you can also check the version you have installed from the extensions list within Chrome. For non-Chrome desktop browsers, you can get our extension here.

3. Change your Chrome and Google settings, which we recommend you do regardless if you continue to use Chrome or Google.

Note that even if you change these settings, we also recommend installing the DuckDuckGo Chrome extension to get more privacy protection than possible using Chrome settings alone.

What is Google Topics?

In 2021, Google reluctantly signaled it would follow other browsers to forbid the use of third-party cookies by default, though it recently delayed doing so to at least 2023. Unlike other browsers, however, instead of just dropping third-party cookies, they are trying to replace them with alternative tracking mechanisms that are just as creepy and privacy invasive.

They first implemented a new tracking method in Chrome called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). FLoC was automatically turned on for millions of Google users who were not even given the chance to opt-out. This was understandably met with widespread criticism from privacy experts. To address the situation, we voiced our concerns and immediately enhanced our tracker blocking so that our Chrome extension would protect you from FLoC.

In response, Google announced it's ending FLoC and replacing it with yet another tracking method called Topics. Like FLoC, Topics will automatically use your browsing history to infer your interests in topics (e.g., “Child Internet Safety”, “Personal Loans”, etc.). While FLoC automatically shared a cohort identifier (for a group of people with correlated interests or demographics) with websites and tracking companies, Topics will automatically share a subset of your inferred interests, which these companies can then use to target ads and content at you.

What are some of the privacy concerns with Topics?

While some suggest that Topics is a less invasive way of ad targeting, we don't agree. Why not? Fundamentally it’s because, by default, Google Chrome will still be automatically surveilling your online activity and sharing information about you with advertisers and other parties so they can behaviorally target you without your consent. This targeting, regardless of how it's done, enables manipulation (ex. exploiting personal vulnerabilities), discrimination (ex. people not seeing job opportunities based on personal profiles), and filter bubbles (ex. creating echo chambers that can divide people) that many people would like to avoid. Google says that users will be able to go in and delete “Topics” they don’t want shared, but Google knows full well that people rarely change default settings, plus the company routinely puts “dark patterns” in the way of users changing these settings, and is therefore making it needlessly difficult for people to take control over their privacy. Privacy should be the default.

In addition, the implementation of Topics presents a bunch of other privacy problems, including:

  • Topics will be made available to third-party trackers lurking on websites (not just the websites themselves).
  • Topics can be combined with IP address or other fingerprinting attributes (also automatically available) so its easier for you to be tracked individually by third-party trackers. Google promises to address this at some point in the future through a so-called “privacy budget” but experts have already called the approach into question. As we’ve explained recently, to protect yourself from these hidden trackers, you need to stop them from loading in your browser, which is also accomplished by the DuckDuckGo extension and app.
  • Specific “topics” (e.g., “Dating & Personals”, “Adoption”, “Antiperspirants, Deodorants & Body Sprays”, “Women’s Clothing”, etc.) may be sensitive to you or may be highly correlated to sensitive information (e.g., gender, ethnicity, etc.) and be used to profile you on that basis.

What about Google FLEDGE?

You know those ads that seem to follow you around onto every website you visit, long after looking something up online? Known as “re-targeting”, these ads are shown to you based on your browsing history from other websites, stored in third-party cookies. With the planned removal of third-party cookies Google decided to also introduce FLEDGE, a new method of re-targeting that similarly moves Google ad technology directly into the Chrome browser.

When you visit a website where the advertiser may want to later follow you with an ad, the advertiser can tell your Chrome browser to put you into an interest group. Then, when you visit another website which displays ads, your Chrome browser will run an ad auction based on your interest groups and target specific ads at you. So much for your browser working for you!

People are, by and large, vehemently against ad re-targeting and find it invasive and creepy. Because your browsing history is used to target you, just like Topics it opens you up to the same type of manipulation, discrimination, and potential embarrassment from highly personal ads being shown via your browser, and also operates without your consent.

Updated Chrome Extension

For all of the above reasons and more, DuckDuckGo has enhanced the tracker blocking for our Privacy Essentials Chrome extension to block Google Topics and FLEDGE. This is directly in line with the extension's purpose of protecting your privacy holistically as you use Chrome, without any of the complicated settings. It's privacy, simplified.

DuckDuckGo Chrome Extension Now Blocks Topics and FLEDGE, Google’s new Tracking and Targeting Methods
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