Cookies and Online Privacy

Published on 1 Mar 2012 at 10:22 pm.
Filed under Google.

Browser cookies are an essential element towards managing your online privacy. With Google launching its new privacy policy today we felt that now is the time to remind everyone about managing your browser cookies.

Browser cookies are a little snippet of data that are responsible for storing information about a user as they are interacting with a website. These cookies are stored on a per-domain basis and are sent on every request to and from a domain. This includes any pictures, CSS or JavaScript files, or videos served by that domain. This can be a blessing or a curse depending on what a site needs. Most sites only ever really need cookie information sent on the page itself, so sites such as YouTube will serve these static files on a secondary domain. At the time of this writing YouTube serves files on the domain Downloading these files is completely safe and will actually load the page faster.

Usage of Cookies: Session Management

Session management is the most frequent use of cookies. Session management refers to the ability to log into a website or to create a unique session identifier so that a website can track products you have placed into a shopping cart. When cookies are disabled there is no ability for a website to know who sent a request. That is why cookies are required for sites such as Facebook — without them there would be no way for a user to log in to the service.

Usage of Cookies: Personalization

Personalization is yet another valid use of cookies. An example of personalization would be having the browser remember the username that you most recently used to log into a site, or the ability to skin or theme the site. If you are not logged into a site and receive a “Welcome back, John” type message than you are seeing a personalization cookie. These cookies aren’t required, so a will still work even if you have cookies disabled. You just will receive a lower quality experience without them.

Usage of Cookies: Tracking

Tracking cookies are cookies which track your actions on a website. They are used to measure things such as how long you have been active on a page, the way you got there, and what type of content you click on. They are used for the purpose of better refining the advertisements that are delivered to you as a user. They are not viruses or anything that will cause damage to your computer. They just try to learn about your personality and deliver content (in this case advertisements) that are relevant.

As you might have guessed, many people don’t like advertisers learning things about themselves. This is why all browsers allow you to set your own type of cookie handling rules. The ability to clear your cookies whenever the browser window is closed and the ability to block third-party cookies (cookies for domains besides the one you are currently on) are two features that are common to all browsers for a long time.

Tracking Cookies: Do Not Track in Firefox

Firefox screen for enabling Do Not Track handling of Tracking Cookies

Do Not Track

Recently there has been a push in the community to implement something known as Do Not Track that is similar to the Do Not Call registry in the United States. The major difference between Do Not Track and Do Not Call is that there is no formal registry. As one might wonder the FTC has testified legislation that existed in the House.

Do Not Track is an HTTP Header that is sent with pages that signals to advertisers that the user does not wish to have their information tracked. Let me be clear, Do Not Track just means that advertisers will not be able to gain usage information based on a user. It does not mean that the advertiser user has the right to opt out of seeing advertisements.

Do Not Track is currently supported by Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari. Opera recently made available an experimental build of that included support for Do Not Track. After initially saying they would not support this feature Google has just reversed course and announced that they will soon support Do Not Track.

Now that you have had a friendly reminder of what cookies are we recommend that you go into your browser settings and set them at the level that you feel most comfortable with. Personally, I disable third-party cookies but I do not configure Do Not Track on any of my browsers. What you choose to do in regard to managing your privacy is up to you.

This post was originally published as Cookies and Online Privacy for The BrandBuilder Company.

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