Code Mortem

"Old code never dies...you have to kill it." - Grady Booch

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Persistent Rumors about Persistent Cookies

I'm still amazed that after all this time the popular media insists on clinging to the old myths about browser cookies. The Associated Press is reporting that the NSA is somehow spying on visitors to its web site. Their evidence? The NSA site leaves a cookie on your machine! Huh??

These articles constantly claim that web sites can somehow "spy" on you or track your web browsing activities by leaving a cookie on your computer. I don't understand why this claim persists despite its complete inaccuracy. A cookie does not actively do anything on your computer. It is simply a way for a web site to store settings in your browser so that when you return the site can continue where it left off. It is not possible to "spy" using a cookie. The privacy concerns are entirely unfounded and based in myth rather than fact. If you disagree with me, please explain how someone can spy on me using a cookie. I'd love to know.

"Privacy advocates" claim that your web surfing can be tracked by using cookies. A cookie can only be used by a site that it is enabled for. Web site owners could track your browsing activity within their own site, but that can be done anyway without cookies. All web servers keep a log of your browsing activities. In fact, whole companies are built on analyzing web logs. Google just bought Urchin, a software company devoted to web analytics.

There are possible issues where an advertising company (such as DoubleClick) would leave behind information in a cookie and since the advertising content shows up across many other sites, they have a way to "track" your usage across sites that use their advertising. Still, since they can use web logs and IP address tracking to do the same thing without cookies, the argument is pretty pointless.

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