While browsers now give you total control of standard “cookies,” Flash cookies are another matter. Woody Leonhard at Infoworld writes about the only way to control Flash cookies in his article, Block ‘Flash Cookies’ to thwart zombies. Hint: you have to go to the Adobe Flash Player Settings Manager site.
The Wall St. Journal (via The New School of Information Security blog) has a very nice interactive tool, What They Know, for exploring the tracking files used by the 50 most popular U.S. websites and WSJ.com.
Is this spying? To what degree can you “opt out” of these tracking files? It’s not easy for the average web user, but doable. On the other hand, content publishers have a right to monetize their content via advertising and other indirect methods considering they cannot get people to pay directly.
This past Friday, the Wall Street Journal wrote an extensive article on the “nefarious” techniques web content sites use to help monetize their mostly free content. WSJ calls it “spying.” It implies that users are unaware that its happening and are helpless to do anything about.
First, if you read the WSJ or this blog, you are no longer unaware. Second, most browsers provide tools to protect your privacy while you are browsing and to delete the “cookies.” Third, since most people are unwilling to pay anything for content, the content providers have little choice but to monetize via advertising. In order achieve reasonable rates, advertisers want to be able to target their ads. Fourth, I believe that most people are OK with the trade-off – free content in exchange for giving up their privacy. If you are not OK with the exchange, see the second point above.
For the most part, I agree with Jeff Jarvis, who takes the Wall St. Journal to task in his post, Cookie Madness.
On the other hand, Wired reported earlier in the week that a lawsuit was filed against Quantcast, a subsidiary of MTV, which allegedly “violated federal computer intrusion law by secretly using storage in Adobe’s Flash player to re-create cookies deleted by users.”
The Wired article goes on to say,
Unlike traditional browser cookies, Flash cookies are relatively unknown to web users, and they are not controlled through the cookie privacy controls in a browser. That means even if a user thinks they have cleared their computer of tracking objects, they most likely have not.
Quantcast claims it stopped using this technique last August 2009 after Wired had first brought this technique to light.