January 28th, 2011 is World Data Privacy Day

January 28th, 2011 is World Data Privacy Day

Friday, January 28th, 2011 is World Data Privacy Day. With a New Year comes a new time to stop and think about how data privacy affects you and your family. Whether you’re accessing information online by a mobile device, social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook, or if you’re using other online services, information you type in, request, or log in with is being captured and acted upon by others.

As a Digital Citizen, it’s up to you to watch the watchers… to ensure that your data is being handled properly by the sites and services you choose to use. As such, you should educate yourself on how sites are tracking your information, storing your data, or processing your logins. If you don’t, who will?

For more information about data privacy, you can visit our blog posts tagged with “Privacy“, or the Washington State Attorney General’s page on Internet safety. Feel free to also check out the StopSign privacy policy for details on how we deal with privacy issues. You can also leave a comment below with any questions if you like.

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Rise of the LSO, AKA the “Super Cookie”

Rise of the LSO, AKA the “Super Cookie”

Since the dawn of the first web browsers dragging themselves from the sea to the land and gasping air for the first time (or something like that), there has been someone who wanted to track what’s happening in the browser. Whether it’s for remembering settings, keeping items in a shopping cart, or aiding in online marketing, the ubiquitous browser cookie has been a staple of the Internet since the early days of the Mosaic browser.

Today, however, there has been an evolution in the browser cookie life cycle, and it’s known as the LSO (Local Shared Object, AKA a “Flash cookie”). It’s not called the Super Cookie because it can leap buildings in a single bound, but rather because, like the Man of Steel, super cookies are pretty darn close to impervious when normal humans like you or I attempt to get rid of them.

What’s the difference between a browser cookie and a super cookie?

The super cookie is both scary and fascinating. Unlike its cousin the browser cookie, the super cookie is a Flash-based cookie that is stored in a different location on a computer than a browser cookie, can be much larger than the 4K allotted the browser cookie, and is much more difficult to uninstall (or even find on your PC) than the cookies you’re used to dealing with. In short, it’s a nightmare to deal with and opens up all kinds of privacy concerns.

What can I do about the super cookie?

Now, whether you want to keep or kill the super cookie is up to you. Like the browser cookie, a super cookie is only as evil as its creator, and most developers will likely use the LSO to make things like tracking general customer information easier vs. attempting to waylay your privacy and sell your data to the highest bidder. However, there are enough differences between browser cookies and Flash super cookies that it’s kind of a “Wild West” situation right now in the Land of Cookies.

If you’re afraid of someone using super cookies for evil (and lets face it, that’s a possibility), there are several ways to suppress or remove the LSO super cookie:

  • Manual deletion:

    The most tech savvy method to remove the super cookie, manual deletion is probably best suited for the technically minded. A super cookie is usually found in the “Flash Player” directory on your computer, but can be stored elsewhere. Use the search tool on your PC an look for the *.sol file extension.

  • Better Privacy (Firefox addon):

    If you use Firefox you can add the Better Privacy plugin to your install and let the addon work its magic on your LSOs.

  • Disable/remove Flash:

    Not a fan of Flash in the first place? Don’t care about certain videos or online games? If so, just disable or full-on remove the Flash player from your computer. If it works for iPhone users, it might work for you, too.

  • Visit Adobe:

    Adobe has a tool that you can use to update your settings quickly and easily. Just go to http://www.macromedia.com/support/documentation/en/flashplayer/help/settings_manager03.html and set the “Global Storage Settings” to “Zero”. This will prevent new flash cookies from being put on your computer, but if you have any right now you’ll still have to remove them as described above.

As you can see, updating, removing, or changing the behavior of Flash super cookies is kind of a pain right now. But like always, we have to roll with the punches, right? Now that you know about the LSO, check them out every now and again and see if you want to keep them around or not.

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Are Browser Cookies Bad?

Are Browser Cookies Bad?

Browser cookies are an interesting topic, because it seems that anyone who knows anything about them has an opinion. Privacy-minded folks probably won’t give them a good review. Online merchants will tell you they’re invaluable. Most people probably fall somewhere in the middle.

If you don’t know much about browser cookies, read on for a brief description of what they are, what they can do, and what to look out for.

What is a browser cookie?

Browser cookies (AKA “cookies”, or “web cookies”) are text files that reside on your computer. Cookies get onto your computer by visiting a website that sets a cookie on your machine. A browser cookies lifetime can be updated by the website that sets the cookie, but as a user, you can always delete cookies at will through your web browser.

What kind of websites use browser cookies (and why)?

Any type of website can use cookies. If you’ve ever been to sites like Google, eBay, or Amazon then your computer has received a cookie. Some sites use cookies to keep track of preferences, such as what color you want a theme to be, or if the login mechanism should remember your username so you don’t have to keep typing it in. A cookie can also be used to keep track of what’s in your online shopping cart so the website can check you out faster or suggest other items you may be interested in.

Since anything that can be described in text can be set in a cookie, the possibilities are endless for what can be put in a browser cookie. The results are in a key=value format, but the key and value are determined by whomever writes the code, so they can be anything; the content can even be encrypted if the developer wants it to be.

What concerns should I have regarding browser cookies?

Can a browser cookie infect you with a virus or spyware? No, not directly. Browser cookies aren’t executable like software programs; they’re just text files. However, they can be used to track things you see, click on, etc. and are therefore technically a privacy concern. If you are concerned with remaining completely private and anonymous on the Internet, cookies probably won’t be your favorite topic.

Even though browser cookies themselves can’t cause problems, cookies can be used as part of the overall process in a malicious scheme. Cookie hijacking, where a third party intercepts your browser cookies on a non-secure connection, is a possibility, and that can lead to things like spyware and loss of privacy.

Are browser cookies bad? Are browser cookies good?

The answer, it seems, depends on many factors. Who (or rather, what website) wrote the cookie? What are they using it for? Is the information kept for use by the site only, or is tracking data passed to third parties? Does the website require cookies for the site to function? Does the website put sensitive information about you or your browsing session in the cookie data?

You can crack open any cookie on your machine to view the contents (remember: they’re just text files), so if you’re really concerned about what’s in a particular cookie, check them out in your browser and see what’s going on. Most cookies are pretty safe, especially those from the Amazons and eBays of the world, but you never know until you start poking around. If you’re really concerned, just be sure to keep your antivirus and/or antispyware software up-to-date and be careful about where you’re surfing. If you do those things, chances are pretty good you’re going to be OK.

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