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Chrome is getting a ton of big safety and security updates soon

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The next version of Chrome for desktops is shaping up to be a much bigger update than usual. In addition to tab grouping and automatically blocking battery-killing ads, the browser is also getting a big set of improvements for security, safety, and privacy.

When the update arrives in Google’s usual “coming weeks” timeline, users will see new features that fall into a few different buckets: user interface changes, more checks to prevent users from visiting malicious websites (including a more proactive option that may share more data with Google), more secure DNS, and third-party cookie blocking in Incognito mode.

The first and most obvious update is user interface changes. Google’s moving some buttons and settings around to make them easier to find. Cookie settings, privacy settings, extensions, and Google sync settings are all becoming more prominent and will get better and clearer descriptive labels.

Google does a lot of these settings shuffles on its platforms, but the changes here are more meaningful than usual because they are connected to several ongoing issues with both Google and Chrome.

Google is moving its extensions menu to a little puzzle icon that will appear by default in the main toolbar. The company seems to think that some users with a lot of extensions aren’t figuring out that you don’t have to have a massive row of them. More importantly, though, Google has embarked on a long effort to clean up Chrome’s extensions and make it easier to restrict their permissions. You’ll still be able to pin extensions to the toolbar, if you like.

Extension settings in Chrome

Image: Google

The new menu will do more than make extensions easier to find. They’ll more clearly show each extension’s current state and permissions and make it easier to chose those things. Expect more changes to improve how Chrome handles extensions going forward. They’re needed: extensions are great, but they’ve always been a vector for malware. Even for experts, it’s hard to keep track of it all.

The next UI change is that Google is bringing cookies out to the top level of its settings menu where it’ll be easier to adjust them. This isn’t a big change, but it might be a way for Google to start educating its less-technical users on what cookies are and why they should pay attention to them.

That’s because Chrome is on the slow road to fully blocking third-party cookies, a move other browsers like Safari and Firefox have already taken. Google is moving slower because it thinks blocking those cookies breaks too many websites right now.

Cookie settings in Chrome

Image: Google

However, Google will begin blocking third-party cookies but only in Incognito mode. In Incognito, there may be more of an acceptance that things could break in the name of privacy — and it will be possible to grant one-time allowances for third-party cookies for each Incognito session.

Settings will also feature a more prominent Safety Check tool. That tool already exists, but Google will expand it with a way to check for known password breaches. If you use Chrome’s tools for saving your passwords, the browser will be able to warn you if any site you use has had a recent breach. It’ll also check for rogue extensions, Chrome updates, and whether you have Google’s Safe Browsing feature turned on.

Safety check settings in Chrome

Image: Google

If you’re not familiar, Safe Browsing is Chrome’s tool for detecting known phishing sites. It maintains a database of such sites and sends them out to browsers as often as every half-hour so that when you visit one, Chrome will pop up a huge, appropriately scary warning.

On the next version of Chrome, Google will offer a new option called Enhanced Safe Browsing. If you turn it on, you’ll be sharing the URL of “uncommon” websites you visit with Google in real time. The reason for that is Google is finding that scammers are registering and deploying new phishing websites at such a rapid pace that even a 30-minute refresh on a phishing database isn’t fast enough.

Google says this tool will also combine with information culled from your personal Gmail and Drive accounts. For example, if Gmail detected a spam email with a sketchy link, this tool could inform Chrome that it’s a phishing site if you happen to click on it.

Obviously, sharing yet more detail with Google — especially something as private as what websites you’re visiting — should give you serious pause. The company tells me that, as soon as its Safe Browsing algorithm determines the URL you’re visiting is safe, it will anonymize the data. Then, it will eventually delete that anonymized data entirely, though it’s not clear exactly how long that will be.

Safe browsing settings in Chrome

Image: Google

Lastly, Chrome will follow Mozilla in enabling DNS-over-HTTPS, a more secure way for your browser to resolve the human-readable URL you type in and the actual IP address of the site you’re visiting.

Google is apparently working with major ISPs to turn it on where supported rather than just flipping people over to a secure DNS of its own choosing. But it’s also not turning this option on for everybody because DNS-over-HTTPs isn’t without controversy. Normally, DNS is sent in the clear, which makes it easier for network-level filters to work. Encrypted DNS makes life for parental apps much more complicated, for example.

Encrypted DNS settings in Chrome

Image: Google

Google says that Chrome will use a list of encrypted DNS providers that the company maintains to match to your ISP, then fall back to default DNS if it doesn’t have an encrypted option. It will be turned off in Windows if parental controls are turned on, and it’ll also turn it off in cases where it sees enterprise device management policies.

That’s it. But it’s also a lot. Combined with some of the other changes, the next version of Chrome looks like the biggest update in a long while, one that sets the browser up for the bigger changes to cookies and tracking yet to come. The update will roll out just as all of Google’s updates do: over the coming weeks.

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Arizona sues Google over claims it illegally tracked location of Android users

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Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has filed a lawsuit against Google over allegations the company illegally tracked Android users’ location without their consent and even when the location tracking features had been manually disabled, according to a report from The Washington Post.

The suit argues Google kept location tracking running in the background for certain features, like weather and for web searches using its search engine and Chrome browser, even after the user disabled app-specific location tracking. Only when a user dug further into the Android system settings and turned off broader system-level tracking did Google stop surreptitiously siphoning location data, the complaint argues.

Google has found itself in similar controversies in the past over location tracking of Android users. The company has responded to privacy concerns over the years with various stopgap measures like making it easier to auto-delete your location data, and cracking down on offending third-party apps that do so without consent. But its efforts to improve privacy protections and the various settings you need to monitor to ensure you’re not being overly tracked remain complex and confusing to average users, and it can often seem impossible to keep tabs on just how much Google knows about you and what sources of data it maintains.

Brnovich is asking a court force Google to pay back profits it may have earned from monetizing this data through ads served to Arizona residents. The Post says Arizona’s anti-fraud laws also might subject Google to $10,000 per fine violations. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“At some point, people or companies that have a lot of money think they can do whatever the hell they want to do, and feel like they are above the law,” Brnovich told The Post in an interview. “I wanted Google to get the message that Arizona has a state consumer fraud act. They may be the most innovative company in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re above the law.”

Google and its YouTube subsidiary, as well as the other major tech companies, are facing a number of regulatory and legal quagmires right now, following antitrust and privacy enforcement in the European Union that resulted in multi-billion fines against Google over the last decade.

Now, US politicians and regulators are following suit and have begun engaging in a broad and coordinated effort across the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, and state legislators to reign in Big Tech and enforce antitrust, privacy, and other laws. These are rules Silicon Valley has largely flouted over the last couple of decades as lawmakers failed to keep up with the pace of technological change and the scale of Big Tech’s ability to exploit loopholes and skirt regulation for monetary gain and market consolidation.

YouTube settled with the FTC last year for violations of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), while Google is currently under investigation by all 50 state attorneys general and the subject of a broader antitrust probe led by the Justice Department.

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Gmail’s latest update makes it easier to change the look of your inbox

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Accessing the plethora of settings hidden in Gmail can be a pain, but it’s about to get a little easier. Google is rolling out a quick settings menu, which offers a sampling of options that let you adjust the look of your inbox without leaving the page. Once this new tweak arrives on your account, it will activate automatically, and you won’t have to leave the page to see the visual changes you make to your inbox.

The quick settings menu contains an option to change the density of information displayed (between default, comfortable, or compact). It also lets you choose which emails you want to have prioritized in your inbox. Another option lets you add a reading pane so you can see an email’s contents without actually opening it. Lastly, you can adjust your Gmail theme from the quick settings menu.

Gmail quick settings menu

The new quick settings menu will appear in the top-right section of your Gmail window.
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You’ll still need to drill into the full list of settings if you want to, say, make a vacation response for some out-of-office time. Google’s putting a link to all of those options right at the top of the quick settings menu, and it mentioned in a press release for this feature that no new features are being added to Gmail. This is simply a nip and tuck of previous features to make its email service a little easier to use.

The rollout has begun for personal Gmail accounts as well as G Suite users who work at corporations on Google’s rapid-release track. If you don’t notice the quick settings menu soon, your workplace might be on Google’s scheduled release track. If that’s the case, the quick settings menu won’t begin rolling out until June 22nd.

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Google now lets businesses clarify what services they offer during the pandemic

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Google will soon let businesses add additional descriptors to their listings that appear in Google Search and Maps results to better help potential customers understand what a business offers at a glance. The company is adding these new descriptors and announcing a number of other features today to help businesses better surface important information for customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new descriptors, which Google calls “attributes,” are short notes that show up under other business information on a listing. A yoga studio that offers virtual lessons could add an “online classes” attribute, for example. Business owners can add one attribute, though their businesses will have to be verified by Google to use the feature. Here’s a screenshot from Google to give you an idea of what attributes may look like:

Image: Google

Google is also expanding a tool called Reserve with Google that lets people book appointments directly from a listing. Google previously offered integrations with more than 100 service-booking partners for in-person services, but now businesses can offer appointments for online services via those partners. Businesses will also be able to specify how to attend the online appointment or class right from the listing.

Image: Google

There are a few new features for restaurants, too. Restaurants will soon be able to specify their preferred delivery or takeout partner company in their business listing, and Google is now letting restaurants that are takeout- or delivery-only (sometimes called virtual or cloud kitchens) apply to become verified businesses.

Google is also letting more businesses across the globe add links to direct donations or buy a gift card right in their business listings. Google first said these links were available to businesses in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand on May 11th, but Google is rolling out the feature for businesses in 18 more countries, including Italy, Spain and Japan, starting today.

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