What, why and how of cookies affecting your privacy
Privacy on the web is a heated subject. You can tell it is because websites like Slashdot have their own section dedicated to it; at the beginning of every movie that you watch there is a bit that says ‘You wouldn’t steal a car‘; the media erupts into seizures every time Facebook changes their terms and conditions. The Wall Street Journal released a series of articles recently about your privacy online and they started off on the humble cookie. And it turns out that it probably is all the web analytic’s industry fault (more on that later).
What is a Cookie?
Let us start at the beginning, like the WSJ did. A cookie is a small text file that is associated with your browser. It can only be read by the website that sets it and also can only be written to by the website that sets it. Typically it is a random string of letters and numbers that are unique to your browser.
Simple? Well maybe so, but the reason it is causing so much controversy is the way that it is used. Initially this cookie was used so that the website you were on could write some settings into it that would allow the website to remember you between visits (or indeed between pages in a session) and allow them to maintain some personalisation (eg a “Hello Alec” message). Well this is where it got complicated, because it turns out that you can then use this information to work out how many people have seen the website, because you can count the number of cookies in your log files.
Assuming that people don’t delete them from their browser that is. Or use a different browser. Or a different computer. Or more than one person using the same computer. Ok, they aren’t that accurate at all, but at least you can tie a session together. Assuming you don’t delete them. Or block them.
Is this A Problem?