Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Code Known as Flash Cookies Raises Privacy Concerns"

This article in today's New York Times concerns the perennial problem of online privacy. The cookies used by Adobe's Flash player are different from those with which most of us are familiar, and are not deleted by the methods available in most browsers to manage cookies. The purpose of Flash cookies is also worrisome:
“The core function of the cookie is to link what you do on Web site A to what you do on Web site B,” said Peter Eckersley, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The Flash cookie makes it harder for people to stop that from happening.”
Many people appreciate the same-site services that ordinary cookies can provide - showing content based on what I have already read on that site, for example. But sharing that information with a different site is another issue altogether. No doubt it can be used to great advantage for consumers, but it is also an order of magnitude more intrusive than ordinary cookies.

The article touches on several issues that arise across many pervasive technologies. Flash cookies, being unfamiliar and "transparent to the user," are covert. They compile information without our consent or knowledge. And although they can be useful and welcome to users, in the end they are implemented in the pursuit of profit, whether by making our Web experience better (the benign purpose) or by manipulating us - or worse - by exploiting our personal interests.

Giving businesses and organizations who use these technologies the benefit of the doubt, I have to say that this practice is rude at best. Imagine shopping malls studying their security camera footage to analyze which stores individual consumers visited and used the information to send them targeted advertising. Wouldn't that be obviously intrusive? Why can't Internet-based businesses understand that we don't like to be stalked? Why do so many people assume profit automatically justifies a practice? Shouldn't we decide first whether a practice is acceptable at all, and then determine whether it is suitable to be used for profit?

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

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