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October 5, 2018

Slate writer: “I used to trust some of [Google’s] products, like Chrome. I increasingly don’t.”

People like Matthew Green are waking up to reality.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed something strange was happening to my Google Chrome web browser. Where Chrome had always allowed me to browse the internet as an anonymous user, suddenly my browser had signed itself into my Google account.

A bit of investigation (and a visit to a nerd forum) pointed me to the cause: Chrome had logged itself in after I visited my Gmail account.

The change in Chrome’s behavior, it turns out, was not a bug. It’s part of a new technical “feature” in the browser called “identity consistency between browser and cookie jar.” Despite the gritty technical name of the feature, it represents a truly fundamental change in the way Chrome works.

For the first 10 years of Chrome’s existence, Chrome was simply a typical web browser. You had the option to sign the browser into Google—and thus take advantage of Google’s many data-sharing and cloud-synchronization options—but you never had to.

In the stroke of an update, the sign-in became mandatory: If you happened to visit a Google property, the browser would attach itself to your Google account.

To Google’s credit, it recognizes the privacy implications of this change, and simply signing the browser into Google does not immediately send your data to Google’s servers. But it brings users within an accidental click of sharing their bookmarks and browsing history with Google.

It is truly a tragedy that so many people use Google Chrome when there are better, privacy-respecting browsers available, like Mozilla Firefox. Mozilla now even makes a special mobile version of Firefox that cleans up after itself called Firefox Focus. Google will never, ever make a tool like that, because it is anathema to Google’s objective of collecting as much data about everyone as possible to monetize all of us for advertising purposes.

It was inevitable that Google would change Chrome to make it easier for it to spy on its users. We’ve been warning of this for years. Unfortunately, many people haven’t listened.

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