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Christmas 'Cookies' and You
By: Jessica Cherok
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If a stranger was following you down the street, you would tell them to stop, right? Or if you came home to find a hoard of strangers rifling through your belongings, would you feel some kind of way about it? After all, you have the right to be left alone. No one should be allowed to just take your information without your consent.

So let’s talk about cookies, and how they enable a digital version of the scenarios outlined above. No, these cookies are not your grandma’s kind of cookies. That is, unless your grandmother is Lou Montulli, in which case — weird.

Cookies are little files placed either on your browser or device by the website or app you’re using. Basically, cookies track your online behavior in order to create a profile. In turn, this profile is meant to provide you with a better, more personalized experience when using websites and apps. While there are definitely advantages cookies can provide to the user experience, there are also some big privacy concerns. And with the holiday shopping season upon us, it’s important to know just how cookies may be impacting your online experience.

So what exactly is it that cookies collect about you? Well, darn near anything. Cookies are how website are able remember you from one visit to the next. This saves you the massive inconvenience of having to retype your user ID each time you return to a site, but what about the other information?

Most people expect a certain amount of their information is collected when visiting a website. But most people don’t expect — or even consider — that their personal information is also collected by third parties, many which have little or nothing to do with the website. In other words, buying from that online retailer results in information your information being collected and later used to target ads toward you, and you probably never even knew it happened.

Creepy? A little.

As a result, Do Not Track (DNT) mechanisms surfaced to stop the practice of planting cookies without consent. DNT gives users the option of opting out of cookies. Perhaps most concerning is the incredible resistance of some to DNT.

Following Mircosoft’s announcement that the DNT mechanism would be turned “on” by default in its Internet Explorer 10 (IE10), The Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) issued a statement that it would not require its members to honor DNT signals fixed from the browser manufacturers. According to DAA, default DNT policies degrade consumer choice.

It’s not surprising that the DAA, a consortium of the nation’s largest media and marketing associations, feels this way. After all, tracking consumers' online activity is part of how they make money. However, what is surprising is that they're condoning the outright ignoring of DNT signals.

In their defense, DAA has a proposed icon system to alert consumers to when they are being tracked. But with companies — most notably Facebook — refusing even that, it’s unclear how the consumer can ever be fully informed.

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About the Author
Jessica Cherok is an advocate for online privacy, campaigning for ethical data practices and the protection of personal privacy.
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