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Now that cookies have become stale
Author: Jeremy Herring
August 1st 2013 -

If you're not familiar with cookies, here's a quick summary. Any website you visit wishes to put a small bit of data on your computer which allows that site to A) remember your preferences to improve your experience on subsequent visits, and B) track where else you go on the internet in order to learn more about your habits, interests and etc. Of course the latter unnerves some users and therefore ‘Do Not Track' legislation became a hot topic, periodically resurfacing in the wake of newsworthy breaches of confidence. Internet browsers have already voluntarily built-in Do Not Track protocols which allow users to reject cookies even without any former legal mandate to do so.

Back when ‘Do Not Track' legislation was first being debated I predicted that savvy internet marketers would simply find some other way to track unique users and now they have. There are actually several different methods being employed but overall it's simply dubbed, "Digital Fingerprinting”. Just like no two fingerprints are identical, no two internet users have exactly the same device configuration. Differences in the hardware, software and application preferences make each user's device uniquely identifiable even if no personal information is present. In this way, websites can still gather the anonymous data they desire to improve their marketing efforts while staying ahead of the laws relating to one specific tracking technique, namely cookies. Technology simply advances much faster than legislation.

Digital Fingerprinting is much more difficult for users to avoid because there isn't an easy way to subvert it. Even Microsoft's own updater has long utilized the type of technology that can ‘scan' your computer and determine what applications you have and what updates you need. From that point it's simply a matter of building a database of all the devices and configurations and then the electronic ‘fingerprint' of each one can be tracked. Application updates, installation of new apps or even uninstalling apps actually makes you more traceable, not less. Unless you're prepared to take extreme measures including disabling all Flash and Java plugins – which will effectively limit your internet experience to text-only websites– you're able to be identified and tracked on the internet whether you like it or not.

One of the primary companies in this new era of not-so-anonymous tracking is a company called TapAd. They've developed technology that using the digital fingerprinting method can track you movements on the internet, your preferences, your usage across multiple devices, and even begin to ‘guess' your non-volunteered information such as age range, gender, location of residence and even approximate income. The startup has been so successful that even the former CEO of competing internet marketing giant DoubleClick has invested in the juggernaut venture which has the potential to redefine online marketing. It's another case where technology surges ahead of legal protections intended to restrain it from abuses. TapAd was being rolled out while Congress was still debating the fate of cookies with its proposed Do Not Track legislation. Yet most of the companies which subscribe to TapAd's service don't want to talk about it or even be identified on record for fear of a consumer backlash because it bears too much semblance to the NSA datamining scandal.

The scope of tracking is not limited to internet marketers either. The Snowden/NSA scandal has reignited a recurring and troubling issue in America – the expectation of privacy balanced with the demand for national security. When it was revealed that for years the NSA has had standing requests to collect all of the metadata from Verizon subscribers, technology giants like Apple, Facebook, Google and Yahoo volunteered to confirm that they too have been required to provide tens of thousands of user data requests a month to the government and none of them relating to a specific investigation. They aren't even allowed to confirm the exact number of requests as even that is classified as critical to national security. As far back as 2011, FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted in front of a Senate Judiciary Oversight Committee that his agency possessed the ability to perform ‘real-time' surveillance on the emails of U.S. citizens, presumably by performing the internet equivalent of a wiretap on the nation's internet backbones. Again, no specific investigation is cited, only the broad mandate for national security. The government insists that it's acting in the best interests of the nation and that its purposes are benign to law-abiding citizens – unfortunately, these same types of assurances have been offered before in history by the likes of Napoleon and Hitler.

The technology being utilized by the NSA? It is provided by a private company called Endgame whose only customers are national intelligence agencies. Even while the U.S. accuses China of trying to penetrate and sabotage U.S. networks, the U.S. Cyber Command (the offensive branch of the NSA) purports to have done the same thing to foreign networks all over the world, exploiting security flaws or planting electronic time bombs in foreign networks that can be triggered with immediate and devastating results. It's the 21st century version of the Cold War, with digital arms pointed at potential targets just waiting for the geopolitical crisis that could set off the whole powder keg. Only on the electronic battlefield there's no distinction between ‘superpowers' and ‘small factions' as the distinction is irrelevant but the devastation will impact not only those who fight the battles but also millions or even billions of civilians who get caught in the crossfire of electronic mutually assured destruction.

There are ways to minimize being tracked but they're not user-friendly and they seriously reduce the performance of your online experience. Basically, products like Tor or HideMyAss redirect all of your internet traffic through different IP addresses in order to reduce the ability of online trackers to find you. PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) solutions allow you to encrypt your online communications, including emails and attachments, but it's not very intuitive and many people inadvertently circumvent it's protections by revealing their personal security keys. PGP has proven to be pretty good though because to date there's been no evidence that its encryption technology has been cracked without the user's private key. Of course simply by employing such safeguards you run the risk of greater scrutiny simply because the assumption is that by taking safeguards you must be attempting to hide something even if you aren't. Online cloud storage is all the rage but anything stored in the cloud can be scooped up as part of a government dragnet or compromised by failed network security so don't store anything sensitive or volatile in the cloud – opt for local storage on an encrypted hard drive or flash drive. Finally, if you're really paranoid then take the battery out of your phone when it's not in use or any place you don't want to be ‘found'. It sounds a little James Bond-ish but you must decide for yourself what your privacy is worth.

So which one should you really fear… the intrusion of privacy by the government or the internet marketers? At least with the marketers we know their intention is to sell us something. As far back as the 1890s, the matter of privacy has been subjective in America. At that time, Louis Brandeis along with fellow lawyer Samuel Warren published in the Harvard Law Review an article entitled, "The Right to Privacy” which actually become the basis for our modern understanding of the ‘right to be left alone'. In 1928, Supreme Court Justice Brandeis dissented in the case of Olmstead v. United States which established the legality of telephone wiretapping. From that point forward it was simply a matter of leveraging contemporary tools and technology to continually erode personal privacy. Brandeis also foresaw the rise of methods as broadly-defined as confiscation of an individual's papers and articles (the modern equivalent is emails and texts) and as extreme as ‘waterboarding', essentially any method of compelling individuals to testify by threat of or actual exercise of torture methods.

"The progress of science in furnishing the Government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping,” Brandeis predicted. "Ways may someday be developed by which the Government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home.”

Sound eerily like our modern society? The secrecy that government likes to claim is in the interest of national security can really only be defended as a smokescreen to cloak the exercise of unbridled powers. As Mozilla stated in their online petition to Congress, "This type of blanket data collection by the government strikes at bedrock American values of freedom and privacy.” Yet as citizens we must be equally complicit when we practice such cavalier behaviors as posting our every movement on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare while demanding a level of privacy that intends to prevent anything we post in public forums from being used against us. The simple rule is, "Don't put it on the internet if you don't want it known by all!”

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