Just in Time for Halloween: Privacy Advocates Say Cookies are Scary

Halloween is fast approaching and while that makes it a good time to reflect on the treats that internet cookies enable, privacy advocates seem fixated on the bad actors allegedly using cookies to play tricks.  The most recent example of this occurred yesterday morning at a press event on the collection of information through “cookies” and companies who read their cookies when you visit other webpages.

After two hours of discussion, there were examples of harms from data breaches, theft of data, and misuse of public information, all examples of tricks from bad actors.   But nowhere in the discussion were there examples of harm from cookies.

The more I learn about cookies, the more I see them as a treat — not a a trick.  Cookies are benign, have been around for years, and are beneficial to my Internet experience.

What do cookies do?  When I sign-on to my Amazon account, Amazon places a cookie on my computer.  This cookie allows Amazon to remember me when I return so I don’t have to re-enter my password each time.  And cookies allow me to update a shopping cart as I browse around the site.

This information is benign, but privacy advocates make it look terrifying.

Cookies help display content customized to my interests when I visit various sites across the internet.  After I leave Amazon and visit NewYorkTimes.com to see a story about the Yankees latest loss, the Amazon cookie tells Amazon that I like baseball.  And the next time I visit Amazon.com, Amazon knows to recommend me a book on baseball. That is downright magical.

This makes sense.  Because I read an article about the Yankees, I see an ad for something I am actually interested in — a  book about baseball —  as opposed to seeing an ad for something like a frying pan.

That’s it.  It’s not spooky or scary, it’s just a collection of my interests.  Am I more interested in a baseball or a frying pan? Companies are not reading my mind or stealing my identity, they are serving me ads based on my interests.

Unlike Amazon, Facebook claims they don’t use cookies to collect my interests across other websites in order to show me relevant ads.  They don’t need to, since I’ve already told Facebook about all of my interests.

Rather, Facebook uses their cookies to make my online experience better.  For example, instead of creating a unique username and password for NewYorkTimes.com, HuffingtonPost.com, and FoxNews.com, I just use my Facebook account.  When I visit these sites, Facebook’s cookie helps show me stories that my friends liked.  And Facebook’s cookie enables me to easily share photos and content whenever I click that “Like” button.

This has been going on for years, so making this a “new” problem is just another trick. 

Internet cookies have been used for over a decade.  And online companies often check for their cookies when their ads or buttons are featured on other web pages.

Cookies are beneficial as they help in paying for the internet and make it safer.  That’s the real treat.

 It’s not spooky or scary, it’s just a collection of my interests.

Internet cookies enable Amazon to learn about my interests even when I’m not on Amazon’s website.   And cookies help ad networks to serve interest-based ads instead of generic ads, making these ads 65% more effective as pointed out in a recent article by Grant Gross.  This is how websites can afford to give us free content and new Internet services.

When I get news from NewYorkTimes.com, search on Bing.com, send Yahoo emails, and keep tabs on friends in my social networks, there is no cost to me.  Cookies and interest-based advertising make these free services possible.  Moreover, cookies and interest-based ads are helping to eradicate those annoying flashing ads, like  “Punch the Monkey.”

Cookies help make the internet safer by making possible opt-in security systems such as login approvals/notifications as well as other measures to protect against account compromise and SPAM.  Everyday, websites stop literally thousands of improper account access attempts by requiring a second factor of authentication for suspicious logins.  Without cookies, they lose much of their ability to gauge whether a login is suspicious.

Moreover, I can choose to not use cookies if I want since all the major web browsers have an option to kill cookies and prevent them from returning.

If websites are playing tricks with their cookies, the FTC should go after them.  Meanwhile, enjoy the many treats that cookies enable.

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