The choice of the term cookies for the things that are inserted into people’s computer hard drives to permit information to go in (and out), is a clever one. What could be more homespun, apple pie and motherhood than cookies, cakes, biscuits….
The privacy website ALLOW calls cookies: ‘small text files downloaded to your computer which allow websites to communicate between your computer and their server’. All sounds innocent enough and eminently practical.
However, the fact is that they have been causing quite a stir in the privacy debate, the regulation of the internet issue, data breach controversies and the entire question of personal control.
Cookies are helpful to smoother, efficient web browsing. They are essential for joining affiliate programs or shopping online. However, they also risk having the power to hold information about people that they would not feel comfortable with, if they understood the full extent.
What are known as 1st party cookies are placed within a searcher’s computer by a single website that the searcher is visiting. The cookie simply records activity while on that site, so records of sales, username, preferences and credit details for instance, are kept.
Third party cookies are more sinister. They are inserted by a totally different one to the site clicked on by the searcher. They come in under cover of the first click, and are often employed by ad-networks or sex sites. They track surfing from one site to another, as if pursuing the searcher, harvesting data on the way.
Most people dislike the notion of being followed in this way, particularly without having given quite specific consent. Indeed, who would give such approval?
At one end of the scale, they provide others with valuable advertising data, which may be bad enough. At the other, more sinister end of that scale, there are such immense amounts of personal data at stake, that if hacked into by criminals or terrorists, potentially they are a gold mine. They can be directed to act in a particular way, to empty your bank account, to commit fraud elsewhere.
New Law Coming In
From 25th May this year, as a result of a EU law, all UK websites must have users’ approval before installing cookies during site visits. They must ensure people opt-in to the cookies, and the aim is that there shall be more transparency about cookies we have allowed in.
As it stands, people can modify their systems to control cookies through preferences, and good computer maintenance recommends regular clearance of spare cookies anyway. In fact, most people don’t do it, mainly through ignorance.
The web has dozens of sites offering to clean up computers and be rid of unwanted cookies. Users have to trust a site before downloading (and in some cases buying) such clean up programs, in case they are merely fronts to get access to the cookies rich in valuable information!
The alarmist view above is refuted by those who argue that as cookies are not programs, they cannot run in that way. Therefore, they cannot gather personal information in a Big Brotherish manner.
Cookies store information as name-value pairs. A website creates a unique ID number for each visitor and store that number on each machine via a cookie file. The people who wonder what all the panic is about say it really is that simple.
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer allows people to see all the cookies stored on the machine through text files containing name-value pairs, one file for each site visited that has installed a cookie. The files simply contain the unique ID value, time and length of visit and any activity carried out online on the site.
Some companies, like Amazon, might store more value information about the visit, showing more particulars of searches and preferences. That may explain why some people are offered some strange recommendations from Amazon, as people are not predictable robots.
So, the debate goes on. Conspiracists love the idea of cookies covertly monitoring all web users for nefarious purposes. Open web lovers prefer to believe all things are good that appear to be so.
The truth may fall somewhere between the two extremes. The cookie jar may actually be both half full and half empty at the same time!
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