Originally published at AdExchanger.com
Google’s recent decision to deprecate third-party cookies on Chrome will severely cripple browser-based targeting, cross-site tracking, frequency capping and retargeting. Ad platforms will be blind outside of the contextual attributes passed in any opportunity to serve an ad.
Third-party cookies have been an anonymous, necessary evil to deliver highly targeted ads. Though third-party cookies are discussed in terms of consumer privacy, the third-party cookie itself is actually completely anonymous. Platforms can’t determine who you are based on the generated ID representing your device. Real privacy concerns start to proliferate when you mix third-party cookies with form-data, such as email, first name and last name, and send that data along with a cookie.
If you extrapolate this use case and allow for that same ID to persist from site to site, data platforms can get smarter about your behavior and interests.
Email won’t save us
Any ID, cookie or otherwise, that can eventually be tied to form-data/PII will become a privacy issue. In light of the coming changes to Chrome, some companies have announced they will use email or other forms of identifiers to replace some of the consumer targeting that will be lost.
Some platforms are proposing email as the Rosetta Stone to “anonymously” identify the consumer. Let’s take cross-site tracking as an example. If platforms are left with first-party cookies, all of the data will be siloed by site. That means the consumer will have a different first-party cookie ID from site to site as they surf the internet. In this new paradigm, email will be used as the key to stitch the data together to reveal behavior and interests, same as before, except with strong standardized joining criteria for offline data.
Email represents another ID tied to the consumer vs. the device, which is even more intrusive. With this change, consumers can further be tied to offline data, such as home refinancing applications or store visits if they gave their email to receive digital receipts.
Yes, I know it’s hashed and “anonymous,” and can’t be reverse-engineered. But an entity with raw consumer data and consumer emails can continue the practice of linking form-data / PII, therefore identifying the consumer all over again.
The problem isn’t a technical one. The industry will eventually figure out a way to technically track consumers. The real challenge is abiding by the emerging policy, legislation and regulation requirements that dictate what consumer data companies can and cannot collect.
The consent solution
Sites are highly dependent on the first-party cookie, and as the industry transitions to using first-party cookies to target advertising, consent becomes a more controllable asset. This is a new opportunity for consent platforms to provide the gateway to ensure that the needs of consumers and the ad ecosystem are met.
Consent platforms have come a long way in establishing a strong foundation to protect the consumer. As an industry, we are finally giving consumers the ability and opportunity to not be tracked.
In tandem with these platforms, there’s technically still a way to use first-party cookies for cross-site tracking, frequency capping, targeting and retargeting without the need of a hashed email to keep the ID anonymous without using PII.
Let’s say I browse to cnn.com, receive a prompt to allow cookies, and I hit “Allow.” If the consent platform took the “cnn.com” location in the browser and reset the location to point to “optin.com?url=http://cnn.com,” it would allow a first-party cookie to be set on “optin.com.” If optin.com would immediately redirect back with “http://cnn.com?optin_id=123,” it would allow for the first-party cookie to be read off of the URL set on “cnn.com” with the key of “opt_in” and the value of 123.
For this to work, standards and specifications will be paramount, and the IAB must play a crucial role in standardizing the first-party cookie workflow outlined above. For example, we would need the key for the first-party cookie to retain a unique standardized name so that platforms that are interested in passing the ID (opt_id=123) know what key to query on the first-party cookie.
The aforementioned workflow would only activate after hitting “Allow Cookies” on a consent platform. As you can see, the ecosystem would all share the same ID when targeting and tracking, granting the consumer more control over consent and providing the roadmap for a safer consumer experience.
There will always be a workaround to track the consumer. While the industry is fretting about the death of the third-party cookie, the real problem is not a technical one. The issue remains what we are legally able to collect on the consumer while adhering to evolving standards surrounding consent and privacy.
We should also be looking at the data that Facebook and Google are collecting. In-home devices, Gmail, Google Documents, Google Maps, Search and Google Apps are all collecting data on a first-party basis, and killing the third-party cookie will do absolutely nothing to stop them from collecting data and monopolizing the advertising market. In fact, it’s empowered their initiatives.
I’m optimistic about the long-term opportunities that this change heralds. The third-party cookie was messy for reasons not related to privacy. Though Google and other industry giants have given themselves an advantage, this change will spur the rest of the industry to innovate, creating new solutions to compensate for the changing environment. The death of the third-party cookie truly empowers us all to come together and build a seamless environment that adheres to privacy controls managed by one ID that represents a consumer and their consent.