In a surprising move, Google has decided to discontinue the usage of the user agent strings in the Chrome web browser over privacy concerns.
For those who don’t know about UA strings — browsers send out the User-Agent strings (a simple text) to websites while making a connection. The text includes a few important details, such as the name of the browser, operating system, specifications of the system, etc. It informs the website about the browser and device type used by a user.
Problem with User Agent Strings
Since the ’90s, websites have been using UA strings in order to fine-tune their content according to users’ machines. But over time, it has also become the biggest bottleneck in the browser’s goal to secure users’ private data.
Currently, UA strings are used by advertisers to fingerprint users at large. Yoav Weiss, a Google Chrome engineer, writes:
The plan: freeze UA Strings
According to the Google Chromium team’s new proposal, the first step is to strip access to User-Agent strings with the release of Google Chrome 81 in March 2020.
While normal users won’t be affected, webpage developers will get warnings to adjust their webpages since extracting UA strings won’t be possible.
Later, Google Chrome will stop updating the UA with new strings with each update for Chrome, starting with Chrome 83 in June 2020.
In the meantime, Google will start combining UA strings into generic values so that websites don’t get too much information about the device.
By the time of the release of Chrome 85 in September, Chrome browser running on different machines will report the same UA Strings, regardless of the platform and OS.
A new phase
Eliminating the usage of UA strings is one part of the plan. The other is to introduce an alternative way that gives out information while respecting the user’s privacy.
In a few weeks, Chrome will roll out a new feature called User-Agent Client Hints. Based on Google’s Privacy Sandbox project, the new approach will reveal the information only if the browser allows it to. With the help of Privacy Sandbox, browsers will share only the necessary information.
The step from the Chrome team will surely help users protect their private data.