How Google’s 2024 Third-Party Tracking Cookie Removal Impacts Users

Published February 2, 2024

Course Mentioned in this Post: Data Privacy and Technology, Data Science for Business


In the world of technology and business, the term “cookies” means a lot more than just a delicious baked good.

Cookies are little text files of information with small pieces of data (such as passwords or usernames) that are created by and stored within a web browser. These files identify your computer and can be accessed by the website at a later time, usually predetermined by the specific site.

Day-to-day, these cookies and other technologies are often used by search engines like Google to report analytics on how you’re using the site. To go even further, many of these companies also enable third-party cookies, which track a user’s browsing behavior across sites. This tracking data is then used by advertising and marketing companies to better align users with personalized ads and products.

If you’ve ever been on a website and received an “allow cookies” pop-up screen, you’ve had to decide between opting in or out of cookie usage. This became even more clear to users when Europe enacted a directive in 2011 to give individuals the right to refuse the use of cookies.

Since 2020, Google has been working to eliminate the use of cookies across its Chrome web browser, a leading player in the space. Finally, in 2024, we are experiencing significant changes as a result of these efforts. Google is starting to test its Tracking Protection feature to restrict third-party cookies with the goal of phasing out the use of all third-party cookies by the second half of 2024.


What does this mean for users?

First, Google’s Q1 test of their Tracking Protection feature is being randomly rolled out to 1% of users. That means the majority of users won’t even take part in the first stage of this change. If you are invited to participate in this test, you’ll get a notification at the top of your Chrome browser.

This brings up the second key point: this update to third-party cookie tracking is only affecting Chrome web browser users. While Chrome does make up over 65% of web traffic usage, it’s not a complete end to third-party tracking. If you use Safari, Edge, Firefox, or any other alternate browser, you still may be subject to third-party tracking cookies.

Third, this doesn’t mean ad tracking is going away entirely. Google itself is working on an alternative to third-party tracking cookies with new tools that let advertisers target specific demographics while simultaneously allowing the targeted users to remain anonymous. In addition, companies like Meta and X can still track your activity across their social networks to feed into ad targeting.

If you’re a user who also happens to run a business benefiting from third-party tracking cookies, you should also be considering what this means for your ads and data. To better understand how you can better manage your data as a business leader, check out our course Data Science for Business. In this online course, Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne leads learners through exercises aimed at demystifying the data science ecosystem and making you a more conscientious consumer of information.



What can users do about third-party tracking cookies?

Before getting overwhelmed about how these third-party cookies are being used to track internet behavior, slow down and consider how this data is actually being used by businesses. It’s a common fear that third-party cookies are like “big brother” watching everything you do. This isn’t entirely true.

While third-party tracking cookies do follow your behavior and glean intent, many sites have enacted Google’s Consent Mode, which allows websites to collect aggregate and non-identifying data. This empowers users to decide their comfort levels with the data being used and permits contextual advertisements based on audience assumptions.

Users should educate themselves on the different types of tracking and surveillance measures, a topic we explore in depth in our Data Privacy and Technology course. Led by Harvard Professors Michael J. Smith and Jim Waldo, this course details different levels of privacy, how your data is commonly used, and the ethics behind how tech companies are handling user data.

Understanding what you’re agreeing to can hugely impact how your data is used. One key area to investigate in any site you’re visiting is the platform’s Privacy Policy. This is often an area where users scroll mindlessly and accept whatever choice the website seems to be pushing them toward. But once you ignore convincing user interface designs and read these documents with intent, you’ll be able to better understand how networks are using your personalized data. A few policies users may find particularly helpful include Google’s privacy policy, Meta’s privacy policy, and Apple’s privacy policy.

For a more fun, interactive alternative to understanding how tech companies are using your data, The New York Times released a video game in 2020 known as “Can You Defeat the Privacy Chicken?” The game simplifies how your data is being used across websites by tech companies. To win, you simply have to give up the most personal information to the chicken.

To better understand how your data is used across the board, check out our data health checklist which provides tactical steps you can take to help protect your personalized data.

If you’re interested in learning more about data privacy, surveillance, and the ethics of privacy, consider enrolling in our five-week online course Data Privacy and Technology here.

If you’re interested in learning more about how business leaders can utilize data science and tracking, consider enrolling in our four-week online course Data Science for Business here.

This post is for educational purposes and does not constitute legal advice.

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