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Checkpoints Lab

Work, Musings, Writings and Projects from FLEFF's Checkpoints Lab 2011

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Posted by Nicholas Knouf at 11:11PM   |  Add a comment

This week's student summary is by Molly Schneider.

The Cost of a Cookie

The word “cookies” never seemed intimidating until the emergence of the World Wide Web. Cookies were constructed by Lou Montulli, the founding engineer of Netscape. The web cookie was meant to solve the “shopping cart problem.” The text file was invented to allow online shoppers to leave the site without worrying about losing their items in their shopping cart as time passes. Even from the beginning Montulli, had concerns about privacy. Today these concerns are more than justified.

The “cookie system” works through a step-by-step process. When an individual visits a website, that website assigns the user an ID number contained in a text file (the cookie). When information is sent back to the browser by the website the cookie travels with it. The cookie contains linked pages the individual visited, products they stored in their cart, and information the user provide such as name, billing address, and username (WSJ video). The cookie is linked to the name of the site visited and therefore every time the individual visits the site, their information will be recognized.

This original intent of the cookie has now been manipulated for behavioral targeting. Advertisers have found ways to track an individuals preferences and interests for the companies own benefit. Basically, a person’s interests and data can be targeted through a third party cookie. This third party cookie has implications of over stepping the boundaries of privacy.

The third party cookie allows trackers (ad networks) to follow an individual’s movement from site to site. Advertisers place this third party cookie by piggy backing off the original website visited. “The bigger the ad network the greater its potential to track your online habits” (WSJ video), and thus develop a profile for the user. This profile is created when companies use the information gathered by following the individual’s interests via website choices. Through this companies make assumptions about gender, age, marital status, and economic standing (Devries, par.4). This system is faulty and can create a person unlike the actual user.

Based on the uneasiness of impeding privacy the public has felt, big companies like Yahoo and Google have started “preference managers” that let the user view and change the profile that was created for them. “Some, but not all, of the preference managers let you halt tracking by that company. But none will block all tracking, or prevent you from seeing ads.” (Devries, par. 3).

This sidestepping around the problem has not resolved the issue. There is a call for more transparency and the ability for the individual to decide who can know their likes and dislikes.

However, sites continue to encourage just what the third party cookie is doing. Privacy seems to be a myth as websites like Blippy are in development. Blippy is a site dedicated to providing the user’s economic transactions online. The opt-in service’s mission, according to co-founder Philip Kaplan, is to “let consumers get side-by-side comparisons of specific products, such as gym memberships or airline tickets, then be able to negotiate or call out a merchant for overcharging.” (Pilon, par. 6).

So, I ask, at what point will society stop the contradictory practice of “privacy”? On one hand, we protest of society’s violation toward individual right. But then again, sites like Twitter, Flickr, and now Blippy are encouraging a life solely represented online and thus vulnerable.

The original intent of a cookie was for people’s convenience. But like all things in the technological world, what starts with good intentions, are then only manipulated for the profit of others.



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