ookies and cross-site connections help track Internet users in ways far worse than most people realise. People assume that when they visit a particular site then it is this site alone which knows about them. Moreover, they assume that they are logged off and thus offer no identifying details. In reality, things are vastly different and it is much worse when public service sites act as “traps” that jeopardise privacy. A site that I recently looked at (as part of my job) does seem to comply with some of the basic rules, but new advisories are quite strict. To quote: “The UK government has revised the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, which came into force in the UK on 26 May, to address new EU requirements. The Regulations make clear that UK businesses and organisations running websites in the UK need to get consent from visitors to their websites in order to store cookies on users’ computers.”
Regulating cookies is not enough. ISPs too can store data about the Web surfer and, as Phorm taught us, they sometimes do. They sell information about people.
In more and more public sites, HTTPS/SSL is supported and cookies remain within the domain that is “root” in the sense that the visitors intended to visit only this one domain (despite some external bits like Twitter timelines in the sidebars/front page. Loading up Twitter.com, even via an API, might help a third party track identities). Shown in the following image is the large number of cookies used when one accesses pages from Google/GMail (even without having a GMail account).
Although SSL is now an integral part of this service (since the security breaches that Windows caused), privacy is not assured here. Although they don’t swap cookies across domain visitors, Google’s folks do track the user a great deal and they have many cookies in place (with distant expiry date) to work with.
Cookies are not malicious by design as they are necessary for particular features, but to keep people in the dark about the impact of cookies on privacy is to merely assume that visitors don’t care and won’t care about the matter. And that would be arrogant.
To make some further recommendations, privacy should be preserved by limiting the number of direct connection to other sites. Recently, I have been checking the source of some pages to see if there’s any HotLinking that’s unnecessary in public sites, which would be a privacy offense in the sense that it leave visitors’ footprints on another site. Outbound links can help tracking, but only upon clicking. The bigger issues are things like embedded objects that invoke other sites like YouTube. HotLinking, unlike Adobe Trash, cannot result in quite the same degree of spying (Google knows about IP address and individual people). If all files can be copied locally, then the problem is resolved. Who operates linked sites anyway? If it’s a partner of a sister site, then storing files remotely might be fine, but with AWS growing in popularity, Amazon now tracks a lot of sites, e.g. through image hosting.
Public sites have different regulations applied to them because many people are required to visit them (e.g. paying taxes), it is not a choice, not to mention the sovereignty principles (e.g. should Google know who and when and how European citizens access their government sites which they themselves paid for?).
In society there is a lot of ransom going on — a lot of ransom people do not regonise or will never be known or reported. This relies primarily in information, unless there is a physical hostage situation (where the prison is at danger of mortal harm). But the bottom line is, those who have the potential to embarrass others possess a lot of power, so there is a fundamental issue of civil liberties at stake. This is why, among several reasons, the TSA agents stripping off (literally or figuratively, or in scanner) is a way of dehumanising and thus weakening the population, normalising indecency and maybe returning us to memories of some human tragedies. The privacy people have is tied to their indignity, worth, and sense of self/mutual respect. Privacy is not a luxury; it is an important tenet of society. Society will suffer if privacy is altogether lost.