ER… WHAT HAPPENED TO COOKIES?
Traditionally, cookies have been at the centre of Web tracking. But there are a number of reasons why they’re losing traction as a sole tracking resource…
- They’re not reliable, because they’re easily blocked and easily deleted by the user.
- Privacy features in some browsers – such as Incognito Mode – disable the transfer of, and access to, conventional cookies, meaning sites can neither drop nor read data.
- If a site relies purely on cookies, a regular visitor will show up as a completely new visitor, every time they clear their full browser history. That massively distorts the data being collected.
Cookies are still in frontline use, as they aid site functionality as well as helping to pass information from one website to a partner. One site places a piece of info onto your drive, and another, related site reads it. That super-convenient method of transmitting info, rather than purely identifying a computer, means that cookies will have a role in computer browsers for a long time yet.
Indeed, some sites have sought to improve the reliability of cookies with a newer and more evasive option known as the LSO or Supercookie, which bypasses the standard methods of detection and deletion. LSOs rely on Flash routines to transfer and read information, as opposed to storing cookies in the usual folders. But providers are still technically required to make users aware of these tactics, and worst of all from the providers’ angle, there are privacy apps available which seek out and delete Supercookies. That’s not the case with digital fingerprinting… yet.
SO WHAT IS DIGITAL FINGERPRINTING?
SURELY THIS IS NOT LIFE OR DEATH?…
You may say: “Oh come on, it’s only about marketing”. And to an extent that’s true (though there will inevitably be other uses for this technology). It’s also, however, covert, and it’s sly. It’s spying. The businesses using digital fingerprinting are not telling you what they’re up to. There’s no little tab on the site that details their Digital Fingerprinting Policy. It’s totally underground, and even the specialists with a vested interest in spreading the word for their own gain don’t want to talk about it. The secrecy surrounding this – the fact that people don’t know it’s happening – is what makes it unacceptable. It makes no difference what the data is used for.
HOW TO FIGHT DIGITAL FINGERPRINTING
Other options? Well, you obviously can’t delete your computer, or constantly change your browser plugins, fonts and other system parameters so as to evolve your fingerprint from day to day. But what you can do is allocate different browsers to different tasks.
All of these browsers will work independently of each other on one PC, and importantly, they’ll each give you a different fingerprint, so what one site sees won’t be the same as what another sees. This doesn’t, of course, stop each site recognising you when you log in, and recording everything you do. But if you’re selectively blocking cookies, it does stop the site’s partners from recognising you when you visit them, and then helping assemble all your Internet use into one big picture.
It makes sense to try and keep the sites that request the most information about you as isolated as possible. Ideally, you’d want to keep a site that knows your name, address and telephone number ‘quarantined’ in a browser of its own. Naturally, depending on how often you share this kind of personal info, isolating individual sites could be impractical. If you enter your name and address into scores of big, data-hungry sites every year, ostracising domains to specific browsers will not be the answer. But then, if you have such scant regard for your data and privacy, you’re probably not going to be reading a post like this in the first place.
You could also attempt to make yourself difficult to identify by using a very typical browser and computer setup. But remember, you need to make sure you’re not adding unusual combinations of fonts – which you may be doing inadvertently when you install software. It’s impractical really.
The best answer would be for law-makers to step in and legislate against these covert behaviours. But since data-mining is a such a massive business, and at its most sophisticated may have parallels with the kind of tactics law enforcement groups use to thwart criminal behaviour, law-makers have to be careful what they draw public attention to. Sometimes it’s just better, for them, for things to be swept under carpet until the wider public raises a concern. And as regards digital fingerprinting, with its veil of silence, that seems to be a long way off.