The Cookie Monster

Cookie CartoonLook at this, this is cool! The classic arcade game Defender, but miniaturised to the 16-pixel square of the page’s favicon (the little logo that appears in your browser’s address bar and bookmarks). You can actually play it.

Of course, you may fairly ask what is the point of playing an old video game in a space about one ninth the size of a postage stamp. But I don’t care, it’s a wonderfully clever bit of Web programming.

Speaking of which, do cookies worry you? The browser ones I mean. Perhaps they should. They were innocent things to start with, just a simple file that a website you visit is allowed to leave on your computer. Yet that can be extremely useful, allowing sites to recognise you when you visit again and log you in automatically.

But then, they can be abused… Suppose you visit a site that has an advert on it. The ad will normally be served from a whole other computer, belonging to the advertising service. And that computer gets to leave a cookie too.

Think what happens next – you go to a lot of sites, you see a lot of ads. But many of these will actually come from the same source, and when that computer reads the cookies it put on your computer earlier, it has a record of other places you’ve been.

A picture can then be built up of your movements across the web, and even used to serve adverts tailored to your particular interests. Or predilections. You might see that as a boon and a convenience, but others may find it uncomfortably intrusive. Especially if they share a computer with family or colleagues.

I’m in two minds about this. After all nothing you do on the Web is really private anyway, so making a fuss about cookies is like complaining that the gorilla on your chest has dandruff. And yet I don’t much care to look at adverts in the first place, so I like the idea of them watching me back even less. I routinely block all cookies, making exceptions only for the sites I visit regularly. This is easy enough with Firefox, using an add-on like Cookie Monster. Call me paranoid, but I’ll get upset if you do.

And it seems the European Commission agrees with me. An e-privacy directive will mandate that sites will only be able to track you with your explicit permission. Is it going to work though? Some argue it will make browsing irritating, with sites continuously popping up messages saying things like “Can I track you please? There are many benefits!” But in the competitive world of the Web, I doubt that users will put up with such nonsense.

So I think it will work. The real danger perhaps is that the ban will give people an illusion of privacy. It means no such thing. If you want real privacy on the Internet, use a proxy.

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