I first wrote on the issue of Flash cookies back in September 2009, and since then, I’ve watched as these obnoxious web trackers and privacy invaders multiply like a virus. Based on the number of questions I continue to get on the Flash cookie issue, it’s apparent – confusion reigns when it comes to this underhanded privacy threat.
One of the better forum comments I’ve seen referencing Flash cookies:
“I think many people may not realize how serious it is. In many ways, I see it as the virtual equivalent of dumpster diving or taping together a shredded document. It is deliberately ignoring a data owners deletion of data by an entity that has no business doing so.”
This practice of web sites dropping Flash cookies onto your computer, which occurs without your knowledge or permission, is akin to hacking – according to some in the security community. Frankly, I agree.
Continuing developments in tracking technologies, and a complete disregard for fundamental privacy rights, should be a major topic of conversation in the security community – until such time as the issue has been resolved in favor of consumers.
In the meantime, we’re on our own. It’s up to us, as individual consumers, to take the appropriate steps to safeguard our privacy (as best we can), while interacting with the Internet.
Here’s what we’re up against – and, this is just one small example.
McDonald’s, CBS, Mazda, Microsoft Sued For Tracking Internet Users’ Histories
In a complaint filed Tuesday with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Sonal Bose alleges that McDonald’s and the other companies “acted in concert with Interclick,” to mine users’ Web surfing history for marketing purposes. “Defendants circumvented the privacy and security controls of consumers who, like plaintiff, had configured their browsers to prevent third-party advertisers from monitoring their online activities,” Bose alleges.
The lawsuit alleges that the companies violated the federal computer fraud law, wiretap law and other statutes. She is seeking class-action status. This lawsuit comes several weeks after Bose sued Interclick for allegedly using history-sniffing technology and Flash cookies to track her online activity.
History-sniffing technology exploits a vulnerability in browsers to discover the Web sites users previously visited. Researchers from the University of California, San Diego recently brought the technique to light when they published a paper explaining the technique and naming 46 Web sites where history-sniffing technology was being deployed. In at least some cases, ad company Interclick reportedly used the technology without the publishers’ knowledge.
Bose also says in her complaint that she believes that the defendants used Flash cookies for tracking purposes. Flash cookies are stored in a different place in the browser than HTTP cookies, and therefore, require additional effort to delete.
Flash cookie quick facts:
They never expire
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.
If you value your privacy, then 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 delectable, 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”.
In the following screen capture (click to expand to original), you’ll notice BetterPrivacy has deleted a cumulative total of 6188 Super Cookies.
The Options and Help tab (shown in the following screen shot), will allow you to choose specific deletion methods. You should consider selecting “Disable Ping Tracking”, which will prohibit sites from following you as you surf the Net.
Download at: Mozilla
For a more detailed breakdown on flash cookies, and the danger they represent to personal privacy, checkout The Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Google Chrome users can take advantage of the Click&Clean Extension (works with Firefox as well).
The following screen capture of Click&Clean’s Options menu, illustrates the application’s ability to deal with Flash cookies.
Delete your browsing history
Clear records from your download history
Remove cookies and Empty cache
Delete temporary files
Remove Flash Local Shared Objects (LSO)
Delete private data when Firefox closes
Automatically close all windows/tabs
Clean up your hard drives and Free up more disk space – including secure file deletion
Launch external applications, like CCleaner, Wise Disk Cleaner etc. on Windows – or Janitor, BleachBit, etc. on Linux
Download the Firefox version at: Mozilla
Download the Chrome version at: The Chrome Web store
You can read a full review of this application – Clean Up With Click&Clean Firefox and Chrome Extension, on this site.
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