Ruh-roh Google’s reCAPTCHA Busted for Enabling Ad Targeting

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November 03, 2020
Ruh-roh Google's reCAPTCHA Busted?
Ad Filterers Lead the Pack in Brand Discovery
Apple Is Getting Its Search On
Google’s reCAPTCHA Busted For Enabling Personalized Ad Targeting
Image sourced from Twitter

Victory Medium founder Zach Edwards was highlighted in an item The Register, by Thomas Claburn, for uncovering that Google’s reCAPTCHA’s JavaScript code enables the tech giant to perform “triangle syncing: a way for two distinct web domains to associate the cookies they set for a given individual.”

In other words, reCAPTCHA allows two separate domains to have access to the same set of cookie data to enable ad targeting. But Google swears in its reCAPTCHA terms of service that it doesn’t use reCAPTCHA data for personalized ads. Ruh-roh, busted.

According to the article, “‘Edwards says what's going on isn't typical triangle syncing. He says if you embed a reCAPTCHA on a site like, for example, the requests then redirect to a new request to and then sets its cookie. "It's a triangle sync not in a traditional cookie match sync on both sides, but in a request + cookie match.’”

While Google maintains that the reCAPTCHA data can only be used for general security purposes, critics speculate that what Google is doing is similar to what they’ve done in the past to bypass Apple’s cookie blocking.

Why This Matters

Edwards and Claburn spell out exactly what this means for publishers in The Register article (and it isn't good):

“‘It's problematic for publishers who care about user privacy,’ he said, because if you implement reCAPTCHA on your website and don't disclose that you set cookies, that runs the risk of violating some aspects of the “right to know” requirement under the California Consumer Privacy Act.’”

Isn't it ironic?

Ad Filterers Lead the Pack in Brand Discovery
When it comes to learning about new brands and products, whether from online ads, ads on mobile or tablet apps, or articles in online periodicals, one demographic is hungrier for discovery than the rest.

These are “ad filterers” or “selective ad blocking users,” the more than 200 million individuals defined by the GlobalWebIndex (GWI) as “users who have blocked ads in the past month but discover brands or products through ads seen online and have clicked on an online ad in the past month.”

And findings gleaned from the GWI show that ad filterers are up to three times as likely as non- ad blocking users to discover brands on the internet,

This data upends a common misconception is that ad filterers are less likely to discover brands than non- ad blocking users. But why does this misconception exist in the first place?

A lot of this has to do with a fundamental shift in the ways that people use ad blockers. Gone are the days of the so-called “scorched earth” approach, when people would use ad blockers to block out every single ad on the internet.

That approach was a response to a high saturation of intrusive pop-ups and glittery banner ads. Luckily, findings into user behavior showed that users with ad blockers weren’t opposed to all ads. What they were repelled by were obnoxious ads.

In fact, many of these users then chose to consent to be served non-intrusive ads, a practice that became known as “ad filtering.” When faced with filtered ads, users found that their browsing experience remained pleasant. And this appealing browsing environment was, as GWI data shows, conducive to fostering brand discovery.
Why This Matters
The idea that everyone who uses an ad blocker is engaged in complete, scorched earth-style blocking, behavior that certainly doesn’t create a good environment for fertile brand discovery, is quite simply outdated and false.

Ad filterers, who make up the vast majority—95%—of the entire ad blocking user base, are open and willing to be served the right kind of ads. And that leads to astounding levels of brand discovery.
Apple Is Getting Its Search On
This feels a bit rich when a large part of the federal antitrust suit against Google hangs on the search agreement between Apple and Big G. Financial Times (subscription required) reports that Apple is quietly stepping up efforts to build an iPhone-based search engine, the results of which can already be seen in iOS 14. Don’t look now, but the $2 trillion-dollar company has been building up a cadre of search professionals for the last few years.
Why This Matters
This is further fuel for what we’d like to believe is a conspiracy theory, but dammit if Apple doesn’t keep stroking our suspicions: Apple wants to create its own private, privacy-focused web for users of its operating systems—mainly iOS. First it was Intelligent Tracking Protection (and the increasingly draconian updates to first-party cookie management) in Safari, then requiring apps to grab an opt-in for use of IDFA, then hijacking news site traffic and sending it to Apple News+, rumors of a new ad network, and now a proprietary search engine...

While many in the industry are biting their nails about Google’s next moves with the imminent death of the third-party cookie, we gotta admit Apple is making us equally nervous. If you think Google has a chokehold on publisher monetization controls, you won’t want to see what Apple brings to the table—ask any publisher struggling to monetize Apple News.
Sweet Tweet
The hypocrisy of Apple is amazing, and unsurprising. Their push for "privacy" is entirely driven by business goals and not any regard for users.

Worth a Listen
The MadTech Podcast Special: Consumer Control and Consent
ExchangeWire COO Rachel Smith interviews Rotem Dar, director of media operations at Eyeo; Katie Eyton, chief ethics and compliance officer for OMG UK; and Hossein Houssaini, founder of Ho/Pe Advisory Consultancy Group, to get their perspectives on how the industry is addressing consumer consent and control in the midst of infrastructural transition.
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