2013-03-22 / Columnists

Your Life And Privacy

Would You Like A Cookie?
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US

Thus asks Don Corrado Prizzi, played by William Hickey in John Huston’s comedy noire masterpiece, Prizzi’s Honor. Ahh, the tender cookie. An innocent gesture of kindness that takes on an absurd incongruity given the source of the offer, a ruthless Mafia Don.

But at least the Don asked. The Internet is not as kind.

Cookies, or web cookie files, are tiny files used to identify you as you navigate through a site. They are deposited on your computer by websites or advertisers and stored on your hard drive (in the U.S., without our permission; in Europe the rules are different).

Cookies contain data generally consisting of a string of numbers identifying your computer, the cookie file name, what site sent it, and its expiration date. They enable sites to authenticate visitors in order to deliver targeted advertising, and to customize websites based upon preferences you’ve demonstrated through previous visits.

Piece by piece, the data most cookie files collect are innocuous. However, when all of our bits of information are aggregated, and compiled with offline data about us (like publicly available government, court, and voting records), behavioral profiles about each and every one of us emerge. Merchant websites buy them from data brokers, because the profiles enable merchants to market their products to people who are more likely to buy them.

Both browser and Flash cookies (the latter are deposited by Adobe’s Flash program when you view video online) can be managed and deleted through, respectively, your browser and the Adobe Systems website. However, if you deny permission for them to load, many websites or videos will not load or function properly. If you clear cookies, they start to pile up again.

Privacy advocates are concerned that over time, these bits of data have come together to form detailed profiles capable of identifying users, including data like income, race, age, sexual preference, hobbies, your purchases, and what websites a user visits. While this data is generally collected to market things to us online, can anybody buy our profiles? Potential employers? Insurance com panies? The government? Consumers generally have no rights regarding the purchase and sale of their own information (with some narrow exceptions).

So many privacy issues, so little time. Who to turn to? Unfortunately not Don Corrado. He is long gone (and was fake). While industry self-regulation exists, government regulators and Congress have been taking a closer look at data brokers, and are urging them to be more transparent with regard to what they do with all the data they collect. So only time will tell if and how the cookies crumble.

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