Google Chrome now targets ads based on your browser history, here's how to turn that off

Daniel Sims

Posts: 1,174   +41
In brief: If you recently received a pop-up mentioning targeted ads when opening Google Chrome and clicked the "Got it" button, you've opted into a new setting that shares your browsing history with advertisers to deliver targeted ads. Fortunately, deactivating this feature in the settings menu is relatively simple.

Google is gradually introducing a new method for delivering targeted ads in Chrome that aims to bypass the controversy surrounding cookies by using browsing history instead. This strategy may raise concerns rather than improving the situation, but it's important to note that it remains optional.

The company informed users of this change through a pop-up in Chrome versions 115 and later, which includes options to either dismiss the message and opt in or navigate to the settings menu to deactivate it. For those who initially enabled the feature and wish to disable it, you can do so by going to Settings > Privacy and Security > Ad Privacy > Ad Topics. Furthermore, users who choose to keep this setting enabled can also block specific topics they don't want advertisers to access.

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Chrome's new ad-targeting system is a part of its recently introduced TopicsAPI, which allows advertisers to access users' browsing history instead of relying on third-party cookies from websites. Google has been planning to shift away from cookies for a while because they have the potential to allow advertisers and other external groups to identify and track users.

You've likely encountered messages on most major websites, giving you the option to either accept all cookies, individually manage advertising and tracking cookies, or only accept cookies necessary for basic site operation. Websites are required to provide users with this choice to comply with the GDPR, which the European Union passed a few years ago in response to privacy concerns related to cookies. Unfortunately, users often opt to accept all cookies just to quickly dismiss the pop-ups.

Google claims that the browsing history provided to third parties through the TopicsAPI doesn't enable them to identify users, making it a safer alternative to cookies. However, it's still unclear whether advertisers could potentially use this browsing history to fingerprint individual users, as they have done in the past based on other information.

Another source of controversy concerning Chrome and advertising is Google's plans to eventually phase out ad-blocking extensions for the browser with the transition to Manifest V3. The company has had to postpone this transition, promising to support ad blockers at least through the remainder of 2023. However, organizations like the FBI recommend using ad blockers to prevent ad-based scams and cyberattacks.

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I listened to a security podcast last night and they basically claim this is the best middleground and much better than currently. This came up because this is coming to Android apps as well, and your app selection can be part of the personalized data that's offered. Here's the opinion he offered:
Steve Gibson said:
We all recognize the tradeoffs, right? If websites insist that they receive more revenue when advertisers have some information about their visitors, and advertisers are determined to obtain that information by any means possible, then Topics is the cleanest tradeoff/compromise I can imagine. If eventually, once legislation catches up, Topics replaces all other forms of tracking and information gathering about me, then I'm all for Topics. That's a tradeoff that makes sense.

So I suppose I shouldn't feel any differently about Topics being extended outside of the browser. If a user wants to use advertising supported smartphone apps, then I suppose the same logic applies there, right? And I should explain, that I personally cannot and do not tolerate in-app advertising. You know if an app is something I want to use, please allow me to send a few dollars your way to turn off its ads. I will do that happily. Otherwise I don't care how great it is, nothing is that great. I will delete any app whose advertising I'm unable to silence, but that's just me.

What we see all around us, pervasively, is that advertising works. Leo as you noted last week, even if I refuse to click on some advertisement, the brand being advertised has been planted in my brain. That's out of my control. The fact is that we live in an advertisement world. This podcast is underwritten by a few high quality enterprises that are willing to pay to make our listeners aware of their presence and offerings. That's all they ask. So Google is extending Topics beyond Chrome and into the underlying Android platform. That only makes sense in retrospect as I said.

But I'm certain that Google will allow Topics, as they do Chrome, to be disabled if that's what its user chooses. So again, props to Google for that. I am 100% certain that before offering that full disablement option, they thoroughly tested what I often call "the tyranny of the default". So they absolutely know that nearly 100% of Android phone users will never know nor bother to disable their Android device's local Topics feedback. And they also know that by allowing their more knowledgeable Android users, like every listener of this podcast, by giving them the option to disable Topics, they're retaining and comforting those listeners who would be upset by this local, albeit extremely mild, smartphone surveillance. And if ads in apps are inevitable, if they're supporting the apps you're using, then you might as well get as relevant an ad if possible if you gotta have one anyway.
What do you think?
I think ads have been served to me based on my browsing history for at least the past 30 years (and the recent browsing of anyone in my household / on my IP address.)

What was interesting to me about this new approach was the opportunity to explicitly see the list of Ad Topics that Chrome/Google believed were of interest to me. However as of several weeks later, this part of my Chrome UI is still blank.

What I'm still interested in better understanding is if there are systems out there that are serving ads based on spoken words within range of a device microphone. I've seen repeated industry denials of this, but I've also had weird experiences where I bring up a very niche topic from say a couple decades ago once in conversation and suddenly there's an ad or content suggestion related to it hours later.
This is illegal in europe aka EU/EEA now
meta ended up in court over personalized ads and lost here in norway the other day
Wow, if they actually push the blocking of adblockers through, I'm OUT of Chrome.

They have 3.5 billions of users - these services are TURNED ON by default! I already saw when I got the notice that it was'nt exactly turned off. This is telemetry on a large scale - and google absolutely WILL harvest that data for better goods.

Internet has'nt bin any better in the last 10 to 20 years. Things only got worse. Take Meta for example, they still show deep fake's holding Elon Musk with rogue investments and nobody seems to bother as long as advertisers are paying.

I've seen nummerous scam shops advertised directly on Meta and Adsense of Google - NOBODY CARES.... It's all about money. And I think as consumers we need to put an halt to these stupid practices.
I'm shocked I tells ya, shocked! I mean, when Google started rallying against cookies, given that one of Google's big sources of revenue is advertising, the cynical assumption was they'd phase out cookies in favor of something that would give advertisers more information. Well... here 'ya go:

"Don't use cookies, trust us it's insecure to have a site store some data then read it back later."
"Here, give these randos your browser history. Trust us, it's secure."
I haven't understood the logic to begin with. I mean, I do from Google's part, they make money through ads so they don't want to allow ad blockers and want ad companies to get all your private info. But I haven't understood why others "follow the narrative" as it were...

Cookies? They only info in them is supplied by the web site, which then can read it back later. You have control over blocking cookies from sites, clearing the cookies, etc. and have for years. So if you have reasonably good control over being able to be tracked from one site to the next by blocking them if you want. Since Google doesn't want you to have this control, they've gone on for years about how insecure cookies are and how they must be replaced by something "more secure".

So, now they want you to give access to your browser history to whatever randos instead. How is that in any way more secure than having some cookies that you can have or not? Well, answer, it's not.

One thing I noticed... I usually use firefox, but fired up my copy of Chrome on Ubuntu Linux (on two different computers); Chrome 116. No ad privacy settings on them at all. I have this suspicion they may have realized those Linux users may have blown a gasket over this and decided to at least delay it for a while on the Linux version of Chrome. (I assume it's not for technical reasons, since after all it's Chrome accessing it's own browser history). "Those Linux users" being the ones who follow the somewhat contradictory path of being privacy-focused, but running Chrome rather than Chromium or some privacy-focused browser.
I didn't even bother installing Chrome on my new PC build. Why would I want Chrome when Edge is already built-in and a nicer browser.

Also I'm am confused as I've been getting targeted ads for last decade on Chrome. If for example I googled sunglasses, all my ads were for sunglasses for a several weeks.