Saturday, 26 May 2012

Emptying the Cookie jar...

Have you ever had a repeat visit to a website after months away and been delighted that they remember your name? A wonderful level of customer service that high st stores just don't match anymore; a delightful return to the glory days of the Grace Brothers. There may even be a little strip of side adverts which are the not-so-subtle equivalent of Mrs Slocombes pussy.

Have you visited a shopping site and been amazed that they are recommending the things that you like to buy before you have even logged in? What wonders of prescience the internet brings with it. Why bother with the hassle of travelling to a shop when the internet not only is polite but also saves you all that bothersome browsing by showing you exactly what you want before it even knows you are there?

Have you ever noticed that the adverts at the side of the page often match your interests nearly exactly (people often don't want to realise this, especially when you are repeatedly being offered what turns out to be Russian brides and Discreet Hook-ups- but these are your interests, whether you like it or not).

Well all of that may be about to change due to new EU rules which govern the use of cookies. The laws relate to established data protection laws and, while initially they will not be punishing offending websites, they will have the power to issue fines.

At this point I many of you will be saying why the fuss? I like cookies, they go great with my morning tea. You may also be aware that occasionally you need to clean the cookies from your computer but most people aren't aware why and that is the crux of the new law.

The assumption when you visit a website is that they have remembered you, so when you return they are simply acting like a greeter at a traditional store where you are a regular. Alas, this isn't the case. A cookie is a small file that they store on YOUR hard drive, it takes up almost no space so isn't really noticed, but on this file they store your name, buying history etc... they may also acquire other information about you which is stored for future use. It is common for them to store your login details on them, so when you next visit the site your computer automatically logs you in and enhances the whole internet experience by meaning you don't need to go to all the bothersome trouble of typing a user name, which may be as long as your WHOLE  e-mail address, and a password which those nefarious bastards often insist includes the confusing mix of numbers and letters. Numbers and letters. In one password. The Bastards.

Of course it is no big deal, right? They are not inconveniencing us and the amount of date stored on your hard drive is like a drop in the ocean on modern multi gigabyte drives. But the fact remains they are using your property to store something without your consent. What would you say if your local builders merchant stored a few pallets of bricks at the bottom of your garden without your consent? It wouldn't really inconvenience most of us, to whom the bottom of the garden is visited as briefly as is required by the lawn-mower and as infrequently as our better halves let us get away with. But you still would not allow it. Of course if they asked you and you thought about the amount of grass two pallets of bricks would cover you might allow it. You might even think it was in your best interests.

Cookies make our lives easier in many ways. And if informed people agree to them then, of course, there is no issue. Previously the fact that the information was stored on your own property was seen as enough to escape the data protection laws. The nice shopping websites forgot about you the moment you left (apart from information gathered for marketing reasons, but usually that was anonymous and who cares provided next time you visit they know you like Jam so they can offer you five different types without you having to click through those two or three links to get there) and in that they are exactly like the Grace Brothers of old; they only remember you when they want to sell you something.

Some cookies are insidious and continue to store information about you after you leave a site-these are commonly covered by anti-spyware software but these things are not fullproof and not everybody has an effective one installed on their computer. So if you want that, ahem, fact-finding search into Thai ladyboys, or whether it is safe to give yourself a caffiene enema, to stay secret from the rest of the web cookies may not be your friend after all.

Most cookies are harmless and exist to enhance your web experience (indulge you idleness). The new laws don't prevent the websites from using your computer to track you, but they do insist you are informed about it. They have to tell you what will be stored and you will have the option to say no.  This will usually take place by way of a pop-up box with a box to tick. One more chore I know, but it is one that can protect you from unwanted intrusions

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