Invasive Web Sites – Another Look at Flash Cookies.
I first wrote on the issue of Flash Cookies back in September 2009, (LSO (Flash Cookies) – A Serious Attack on Your Privacy), and since then, if my own experience with these obnoxious web trackers is any indication, these “privacy invaders”, have multiplied like a virus.
Just like you I suspect, I have a list of particular sites that I visit nearly every day. In my case, that amounts to roughly 30 different sites. In my initial investigation of Flash Cookies, these 30 or so sites, left a total of 7 Flash Cookies. That total has now increased to 23 for these same sites.
Cookies are there for the benefit of advertisers; not the web site visitor – plain and simple. Keep in mind, that it’s critically important to advertisers to generate advertising that is specific to the web site visitor at the time of the visit – not later, but right then. And cookies are the tool that facilitates this happening.
Luckily, today’s Internet browsers can be set to allow full user control over cookies including accepting, rejecting, or wiping private data which includes wiping cookies. That is, until recently – until the advent of the Super Cookie.
It appears that a user’s decision to control cookies, in this way, is simply not acceptable to advertisers and certain web sites, and so we now have the Flash Cookie (LSO) – Local Shared Objects.
There is a major advantage for an advertiser to employ Flash cookies, not the least of which is; they are virtually unknown to the average user. Equally as important from an advertisers perspective is; they remain active on a system even after the user has cleared cookies and privacy settings.
If you think this practice is restricted to shady web sites; think again. Of the top 100 web sites, 50+ use Flash Cookies. So I was not particularly surprised, when I found some of my favorite sites involved in this invasive practice.
LSO fast facts:
Can store up to 100 KB of information compared to a text cookie’s 4 KB.
Internet browsers are not aware of those cookies.
LSO’s usually cannot be removed by browsers.
Using Flash they can access and store highly specific personal and technical information (system, user name, files,…).
Can send the stored information to the appropriate server, without user’s permission.
Flash applications do not need to be visible.
There is no easy way to tell which flash-cookie sites are tracking you.
Shared folders allow cross-browser tracking – LSO’s work in every flash-enabled application
No user-friendly way to manage LSO’s, in fact it’s incredible cumbersome.
Many domains and tracking companies make extensive use of flash-cookies.
Without a doubt, you need to control these highly invasive objects, and if you are a Firefox user there is a solution – BetterPrivacy – a free Firefox add-on.
From the BetterPrivacy page:
“Better Privacy serves to protect against not deletable, long-term cookies, a new generation of ‘Super-Cookie’, which silently conquered the internet.
This new cookie generation offers unlimited user tracking to industry and market research. Concerning privacy Flash- and DOM Storage objects are most critical.
This add-on was made to make users aware of those hidden, never expiring objects and to offer an easy way to get rid of them – since browsers are unable to do that for you”.
Note: The small “G” in the above graphic, lets me know that GeSWall, part of my layered anti-malware defense, is working correctly.
Download at: Mozilla
I quite like Better Privacy since it’s a one-click solution. On the other hand, for users who don’t want to be rid of all Super Cookies, (there may be very legitimate reasons for choosing not to do so), NirSoft offers an interactive, Browser independent solution.
FlashCookiesView is a small utility that displays the list of cookie files created by Flash component (Local Shared Object) in your Web browser.
For each cookie file, the lower pane of FlashCookiesView displays the content of the file in readable format or as Hex dump. You can also select one or more cookie files, and then copy them to the clipboard, save them to text/html/xml file or delete them.
Since this small application doesn’t require installation, it’s suitable as a USB portable tool.
System requirements: Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows Vista, Windows 7 (no indication on the developer’s site that x64 is supported).
Download at: PC World
Simple HTTP cookies can be subject to attack by cyber criminals, I suspect that it won’t be long before flash cookies will be subject to the same manipulation. Better you should learn how to control them now – not later.
Privacy, in all areas of our life is under constant attack, but that shouldn’t mean that we give up. We need to learn to fight back with every tool that’s available.
Since these are Flashed based cookies, Adobe does offer a way to exercise a degree of control. I found this solution at Adobe’s Flash Player Help Site, needlessly complex.
For a more detailed breakdown on flash cookies, and the danger they represent to personal privacy, checkout The Electronic Privacy Information Center.
If you found this article useful, why not subscribe to this Blog via RSS, or email? It’s easy; just click on this link and you’ll never miss another Tech Thoughts article.