Browser cookies are becoming an issue

The New York Times is reporting a rising number of law suits against some major players because of their use of persistent web tracking:

— Fox Entertainment Group
— NBC Universal
— Specific Media
— Quantcast

The Times said the suits are claiming that the companies used Flash cookies to collect data on browsing activities in spite of the fact that users had privacy settings on to block them.

Those Local Shared Objects (LSOs) are persistent cookies that are stored in several ways and in some cases will restore themselves when deleted. One is available, with a detailed description here.

There are really mixed reviews on cookies. They range from the paranoid take of the tinfoil hat crowd (“it’s the government! Remember Roswell?”) to the mindset of marketing folks who find targeted advertising a very handy tool. And, hey, advertising does pay the bills.

Everyone agrees that, yes, it is possible for the marketeers to amass a lot of data about individuals by using cookies to monitor browsing activity. The question that probably will be decided in court is: “how much monitoring should be allowed?”

Cookie counter measures
On the New York Times site, someone who called him or herself “Blue Sun” from Stockton, NJ, left a long and detailed comment describing an entire set of anti-tracking practices, including the names of several Firefox add-ons: “Retargeting Ads Follow Surfers to Other Sites”

Blue Sun recommends using Firefox because it has lots of add-ons and lists a number that are useful:

— Ghostery, blocks invisible trackers such as web ‘bugs’, pixels and beacons used by behavioral data providers and ad networks.
— BetterPrivacy, identifies and enables you to delete locally shared objects (described above).
— Click&Clean
— Eraser
— Privacy Plus

Cookie removal
You can remove the advertising cookies (not the LSOs) on your machine whenever you want:

In the Firefox menu: Tools | Privacy | Remove Individual Cookies

It’s impressive just to look in there and see the number of cookies that you’ve accumulated. If you “remove all cookies” keep in mind that you’re going to be required to use your log-in name and password on those pages on which you’ve “saved passwords” in the past.

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The Firefox add-on Adblock Plus is another little helper that will simply stop ads from appearing when you visit pages that contain them. (Tools | Add-ons | Get Add-ons).

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Those who would like a strong dose of Web security can also disable JavaScripting. Unfortunately that kills a lot of very useful functionality on web pages, including logins and shopping.

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Macromedia’s help page that describes how to use Flash Player security settings is here.

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The Firefox add-on NoScript also is an excellent option for controlling Javascript running in your browser. It gives you the option of letting it run or not. That’s a much more graceful way of doing it than simply shutting it off in Firefox options.

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