The Penalty Box

Five minutes for attempted world domination

Cookie Permanence

May 13, 2013 at 08:33 PM | categories: Tech, Coding | View Comments

Earlier this year, Firefox announced they would block third party cookies by default. The purpose? The age old cry of user privacy. While this is a noble gesture, and in line with Mozilla's stance on openness, it's basically like trying to plug a leaking dam with gum. Just as the water will find a way out, so too do the companies wanting to find out everything that you do on the internet.

For example, you probably know that Facebook is already watching everything that you do. Log out? Tough, that just means no one can baggy pants you by writing that you like to smell butts on your Wall. Facebook's cookie is still active, and whatever site has a Facebook Like button knows that it's you. They aren't the only company doing it. Google does it too, so does Microsoft (despite its campaign against Google). Heck, every ad server is doing it, and not just the big boys. Heard of App Nexus? They've got you placed in segments of interest. Demdex? Them too. That's all from just users seeing and interacting with ads.

So what if every browser says "nuh uh" to third party cookies? Well, there are always other ways around it. Storing cookies in Flash plugins is a popular method. Don't install Flash? How about Silverlight? Etags? JavaScript window objects? Web history? Yeah, cookies can be put in all of those things. Just about the only way around it is to use Chrome's Incognito Mode or Safari's Private Browsing, but then you're still sending it all to the Apple/Google motherships. Plus, you'd then have to log into Facebook, e-mail, forums et al every single time you open your browser. Security and convenience never go hand in hand. Other options include something like Ghostery or plugins that manage third party cookies for you.

Why the incessant hovering over your virtual shoulder? The ever drive towards the return on investment on ad buys. The old way of ad buys used to be spending thousands of dollars on an ad campaign, usually in a flyer in your local newspaper or on the electronic media outlets. If you experienced a bump in sales, you attribute that to the ad campaign. It's a little wishy washy because the campaign didn't occur in a vacuum, but on the whole it's basically true. However, with Internet ads, it's much easier to see if a user actually physically interacted with an ad (clicking) and did something on your site as a result (conversion). Marketers are getting savvier about ad spends because they like numbers they can spin into a story. Ad companies are eager to help write these stories because that's how the business comes in. End result? Your browsing habits become just as valuable as the inventory in the store because what you're looking for is the next bit of revenue for a company. They want to get their ad in your face showing you something that they have that you want to buy.

Mark Zuckerberg was right about privacy being irrelevant. Most of our privacy right now is pretty much security through obscurity. Heck, people still think e-mail is a secure communications method (it's a virtual postcard, for the most part no one cares except the sender and the receiver). Lots of people, young and old, are of the "share first, figure out later" mentality. Heck politicians still think that the Internet is "like speaking to someone in your living room" and are getting fired over it. Every now and then, someone makes noise about privacy (hello Instagram!) but in 3 days, everyone forgets about it and goes back to posting grainy filtered pictures of their food. As much as we should care about our privacy, we don't, because we want to be sold the next greatest thing, we want to share things with our friends and the world and privacy just gets in the way.

We were all willing to give away our user data in order for all of these web services to be free. Horses are out of the barn, and even if we were willing to pay for the content (which we're not, given the failure of newspaper paywalls), there's no going back. It's just going to take a little more effort to protect what we want to remain private.

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