Cookie monsters

The government cookie story is getting stupider by the day. The AP — having naively believed they had some investigative scoop when they discovered that the NSA site, like most every site on earth, sets cookies — now finds that the White House has “bugs”: gifs that let stats software count visitors (like the garish, multicolored thing on the very bottom right of this page). All it does is measure traffic. It is an issue only with the tin-hat society. This is a nonstory born of ignorance and paranoia and now hype.

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  • supafuncy

    Dumb yes but believe it or not some people don’t trust cookies, or the government…even a little bit, enough to accept the cookie thing.

  • Jimmy

    I always find it interesting how dismissive and rude you can be. I think you’ve written two post on this “issue,” both of them condescending. Wouldn’t it be better to explain just what the hell these cookies and things are — I mean, you paint yourself as this guru of the Internet and citizen journalism. Enlighten, instead of condescend. I don’t consider myself an Internet neophyte, but even I don’t fully understand these things.

    That being said, this is more an indication of the society we live in. When citizens discover their president has no problem circumventing the law of the land to spy on American citizens (no matter how hyped that might be), how can you expect them to act otherwise? Being scared breeds ignorance, paranoia, and hype.

  • Gaius Arbo

    Jimmy,

    I think maybe you should reword the statement:

    “Being scared breeds ignorance, paranoia, and hype”.

    Rather, it should read:

    Being ignorant breeds fear, paranoia, and hype

    This is a complete non-story being hyped into something it is not. Period. And you appear to be swallowing it, hook, line and sinker. If you do not understand the technology, it is not the role of Mr. Jarvis to provide you with lifetime, free education.

    If Mr. Jarvis is being “rude and dismissive” (I rather think he is not) it is because this entire fabricated controversy is not worthy of much discussion. It is certainly beyond belief that a major media outfit like the AP would even consider publishing such ridiculous nonsense. Especially when their website sets persistant cookies that vitually never expire.

    Ok, I’m all done being rude and dismissive for the moment.

    A very Happy New Year to all.

  • foner

    The previous response is absolutely the most intelligent thing I’ve heard all day

  • http://www.kirabug.com kirabug

    Jimmy wrote:
    “Wouldn’t it be better to explain just what the hell these cookies and things are — I mean, you paint yourself as this guru of the Internet and citizen journalism. Enlighten, instead of condescend. I don’t consider myself an Internet neophyte, but even I don’t fully understand these things.”

    Hi! Most people, even experienced web users, don’t know much about these technologies. Please let me sum up.

    Cookies are small text files that a website can send to your computer’s Cookies folder, so that the next time you load a page on that site (in two minutes or days from now) the website can read the file it left there a few days ago.

    Cookies can be “session” cookies – last only as long as you’re on the site, but once you leave they’re deleted. “First party” cookies mean the site you’re visiting is the one that posted the cookie — as in “buzzmachine.com” left a “buzzmachine.com” cookie on your system so the next time you visit “buzzmachine.com” can read it. These and “third party” cookies are “persistent”, which means that they’re not automatically deleted. They do, however, have expiration dates at which point your computer’s web browser deletes them. “Third party” cookies are left when you’re visiting “buzzmachine.com” but “buzzmeter.com” puts a cookie for “someone-else.com” on your system.

    Cookies, like guns, aren’t inherently evil or good – it’s all in how they’re being used. And most websites are using them for good, not evil, remember things like the name you use when posting comments, or what color background you like, etc. Third party cookies can be used by, say, an ad agency, to figure out which of the sites they put ads on you visited, and thus build a tracking history for what kinds of people visit sites with what kinds of ads. (The folks reading cnn.com are also reading msnbc.com, that kind of thing.)

    You can block cookies, though depending on the website, blocking cookies may break your ability to log into your accounts or use certain features. If you’re going to block cookies, I personally recommend blocking the third-party cookies and leaving the session and first-party alone. You can also set your web browser to prompt you for a specific site — so that you get to choose whether to accept cookies from buzzmachine.com or not.

    The OMB has a policy not to use first or third party cookies. Most webservers (the software) come preconfigured with cookies and someone forgot to shut them off at the NSA. They shut them off. The news media had a field day. For more on the insanity of that particular situation, go back three threads.

    WebTrends is a company that does statistical analysis for websites. They tell you things like, “The folks reading the kitting page aren’t buying yarn” or “Most people coming to your site are coming through Google search results for knitting, reading one page and leaving”. These pieces of information allow your website marketing department to work with your website design department to figure otu how to spruce up the page to meet your goals — say, adding a “yarn store” link to the knitting page, or figuring out what those Googlers are looking for and providing it, so they want to stay and shop.

    Almost all the information places like WebTrends gather can be taken out of the website’s server logs, but the software the stats companies have developed make it much much easier to analyze.

    And if this story was about anyone other than the White House, it would probably be an allegation that WebTrends is tracking activity, not the government.

    The most important part to remember is that neither of these technologies is designed to track what you (Jimmy) are doing on your computer. They’re designed to aggregate what we (webvisitors to buzzmachine.com, for example) are doing, so we that the web developers can give us what we’re looking for. After all, if they give us what we want, we don’t call them for support or customer service, or we do click their ads, both of which is financially good for the website.

    Okay, so that was kind of long. I’m not very good at summing up.

    Jimmy wrote:
    Being scared breeds ignorance, paranoia, and hype.

    I hope that crash-course on cookies and trackers helps lessen the ignorance, and thus the paranoia and hype.

    More info on cookies here: http://computer.howstuffworks.com/cookie.htm
    More on web counters: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_counter

  • Ravo

    The AP has filled the year of 2005 publishing ridiculous nonsense and trumped up scare monger charges with no basis against the current administration.

    It used to be anything you read in the papers you believed. That’s how their scaremongering twist on the Tet offensive lost an entire war and led to the slaughter of millions of Vietnamese, and an additional 48,000 American lives

    And in 2005, the myths were many. John Stossel names a few:

    Looking back on 2005, I realize that much of what I heard — and what the media said — turned out to be myths. Newsweek reported that U.S. interrogators had flushed a Koran down a Guantanamo Bay toilet. After Hurricane Katrina, reporters said that sharks from Lake Pontchartrain were swimming through New Orleans, and roving bands of armed gang members were attacking the helpless. Myth after myth.

    On can only guess at the thousands of twisted manipulations of popular opinion that took place undectected before the internet.

  • http://blog.spartac.us/ Brian O’Connell

    Presumably it’s the press’s job to dispell ignorance. But they’re not. They’re spreading paranoia instead.

    It’s become a cliched obseration by now that whenever the news reports on something that a particular person knows well, that person will observe that they were surprised at how many facts the press got wrong. And they’ll wonder how much is wrong in news items about subjects they don’t know well.

    Knowledge of cookies isn’t universal, but it’s certainly widespread enough, because they’re relatively simple, that the MSM is chipping away at its credibility among many millions of people.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    All web servers have the capacity to track visitors to a log file which can then be analyzed to track traffic.

    A normal log file contains the date/time of access, the IP address of the browser, the file requested, the status of the request, and (if a link was clicked on or a search engine used) the address or search string used to find the material.

    Some people use a third party service to track data (perhaps because they don’t have access to the server host’s log files). This is done by mean of an object on the page which is served from the tracking service as on this site.

    So, whether the tracking is visible to the end user or not, the amount of information available is about the same.

  • Ravo

    It is certainly beyond belief that a major media outfit like the AP would even consider publishing such ridiculous nonsense. Especially when their website sets persistant cookies that vitually never expire.

    The leftists see an opportunity to garner the support of the ignorant, the audience they count on.

  • Gearhead

    The NSA are the good guys. Even if you you disagree, you got to admit they’re the smart guys when it comes to this computer stuff. Smarter than me anyway.

  • richard mcenroe

    Ummm… doesn’t the NY Times make you accept cookies to log on?

  • http://www.billingsnews.com David Crisp

    Jeff, I’m surprised that you are so dismissive of this. It may not be a big deal, but what the NSA was doing apparently did violate federal rules. That makes it worth reporting, and if it has been wildly overplayed, I have missed it. When the government violates its own rules, and a reporter points that out, how is that naive?

  • http://blog.spartac.us/ Brian O’Connell

    Right, David. And Congress should hold hearings and the IT guy should be indicted. Also, it helps if cookies are exclusively referred to as “internet tracking files, surreptitiously planted on users’ computers”.

  • http://doc.weblogs.com Doc Searls

    Web bugs aren’t just for following traffic.

    In fact, they are a subject worthy of revisitation by the Citizens Journal Corps.

    Speaking of which, check out what Rich Karlgaard says here. Specifically,

    Blogs really do threaten the mainstream media. Thought experiment: Suppose you call yourself a pro-technology supply-sider. (That’s what I happen to be, because I think Moore’s Law and Say’s Law drive growth and prosperity in the world.) A reader with such an outlook will find a home at RealClear Politics and Tech Central Station because the editors of those überblogs see the world in the same way. You might ask, “Well, doesn’t the Wall Street Journal see the world likewise?” Yeah, mostly. But the WSJ needs thousands of employees and tons of ink and paper to produce its product. RealClear Politics gets by with fewer than ten employees.

  • http://www.kirabug.com kirabug

    When the government violates its own rules, and a reporter points that out, how is that naive?

    I think it’s a matter of degree. In Pennyslvania, it’s illegal to sleep on top of a refrigerator outdoors. If a member of the Pennsylvania state government was caught doing so and the local media put it in the papers and tried to show how it was another example of the way the Governor flouted the law, I’d think it was someone making a mountain out of a moleholl.

    But there’s a lot of fear and paranoia around cookies and other web technologies that just isn’t warranted. The restrictions the OMB put into place for their office are very conservative to begin with. The NSA cookies issue was a quickly corrected mistake that anyone in the tech field could have made (and many companies have — without scrutiny — because they’re not under the magnifying glass the government is). The web tracker being called a “bug” is fearmongering, and the use of that technology isn’t illegal in the first place.

  • C Bennett

    Interesting work done at Carnegie-Mellon University (as well as other places) studys the social amplification of risk — both real risk and perceived risk. Socially amplifying perceived risk is a science and is rather straight-forwardly employed.

    This area of study identifies mainstream media not as a source for education but drama — newspapers and the evening news don’t sell “information,” they sell theatre.

    There are ten characteristics that create drama in a story; number one on the list is “blame.” The tiniest bit of information (a thunderstorm in the midwest, say) can be frontpage drama if blame (it’s a sign of what happens when Bush won’t comply with Kyoto) can be attached.

    The idea that education will eliminate concerns about cookies and traffic counters is based on the presumption that “information” is what the AP is selling in their story. They aren’t — they are selling drama, and the theme isn’t the cookie, it is who put it there. Just like at home, it isn’t the cookie jar that is of interest, it is whose hand is in it.

  • http://www.kirabug.com kirabug

    Doc, your blog article (hey, nice plug! can I link to my site to plug it too?) says “users who, whether they know it or not, are no more anonymous than their IP addresses, which are totally knowable.”

    But the IP address by itself doesn’t get you anywhere. Most internet service providers give out the IP addresses randomly, and only they know who’s got what IP addresses any given day. And believe you me, they’re not going to let you call up and say, “Hey, who had IP address 192.16.8.0.1 on Tuesday the 2nd of July at 3:00?” if you don’t have a warrant in your hand.

    And if you do have a warrant, well, you have a darned good reason to get the info.

    So I’m going to chalk this up to more fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Thanks!

  • http://www.kirabug.com kirabug

    Hey, C. Bennett, do you have a link to that CMU research? that sounds cool :)

  • Gearhead

    I’ll agree with the chalk it up to F.U.D. comment.
    This seems like the library records paranoia.
    People watch more TV than they should.
    The NSA isn’t trying to sell you anything.
    Look at the mail. The postal service talks about
    the integrity of the mail and look at all the crap
    and junk mail you get every week. It never ends.
    The web is full of digital junk mail. Its a new trend.
    The government gets stuck carrying the freight, much of which ends up in the garbage trucks every week.

  • Ravo

    While the AP runs stupid manipulative stories supporting the left’s political agenda: here’s five very important ones they all but buried, since it doesn’t serve that agenda:

    Top Five 2005 Stories the MSM hated

    (Below are excerpts from an excellent article by Steve Feinstein)
    http://www.americanthinker.com/articles.php?article_id=5117

    5. The Michael Steele garbage-dump scavenger hunt

    If the two parties’ roles had been reversed, Ms. Pelosi’s outraged howls complaining of the Republicans’ “Culture of Corruption” would have reached new heights.

    At the time, Steele said he would press the matter, but the story got absolutely no traction in the mainstream news and was quickly forgotten. The story was AWOL in the New York Times.

    4. The trial of Saddam Hussein

    one of humanity’s most heinous offenders, yet coverage of the proceedings against him is reported in an almost excuse-me, second-section manner.

    …It’s as if the MSM is afraid that with an accurate presentation of Saddam’s crimes, set within the proper larger context of the significance of the trial, the MSM will give legitimacy to both the notion of regime change in Iraq and the larger War on Terror, something they clearly do not wish to do.

    3. The U.N. Oil-for-Food Scandal and Kofi Annan’s [non-] Resignation

    That no one has been held fully accountable for the slipshod, sloppy, incompetent, almost-certainly-criminal manner in which the greatest amount of money in the history of humanitarian efforts ended up in the pockets of people for whom it was clearly not intended is, indeed, a top-five Story of the Year. As quickly as each piece of this sordid puzzle came to light, that’s how quickly the liberal media quashed it for fear of exposing the U.N.’s corruption, powerlessness, anti-American bias, and irrelevance.

    If the oil-for-food scandal had forced Annan into a humiliating resignation, the President’s position would be proven to be incontrovertibly correct, much to the chagrin of the fawning, liberal, international-approval faction.

    2. The Great Economy

    Yet in an effort to deny the President (and by extension, the Republican-controlled House and Senate) any credit whatsoever, the MSM continually ignores the excellent economic big picture. Instead, they seemingly attempt to portray all good economic news in vague, ambiguous light. The New York Times said on 12/27/05,

    “Though final results for the holidays will not be available for several weeks, analysts and retail executives are projecting a respectable [6% increase] but not stunning season.”

    Considering that gasoline prices shot up to over $3.00 per gallon after Katrina and consumer sentiment at the time fell just as quickly, the idea that the nation’s retailers would even enjoy a “respectable” holiday season seemed far-fetched in September. But to the Times and other MSM outlets, Republican economics are always a glass half-empty proposition. Interestingly, the 12/27 Wall Street Journal Online edition reported that Christmas sales increased a very strong 8.7% over the previous year, the same day the Times chose to grudgingly characterize sales as merely “respectable.”

    1. Positive Progress in both Iraq and the War on Terror

    Hussein is gone. His WMD threat—whether giving them to anti-U.S. terrorists or building more sophisticated delivery systems with which to attack his neighbors again—is gone. The U.S. and the world are safer. The Middle East is more stable. The Iraqi people have voted successfully three times since January, to the apparent but undeniable disappointment of the liberal media and those leading the Democratic Party opposition to President Bush. The Iraqi economy is growing rapidly. Newspapers and television stations are flourishing. The vast majority of the Iraqi people are optimistic about their future, as they embrace democracy and emerge from decades of oppression.

    Yet the MSM and the Democratic Party both find themselves reduced to fixating on arbitrary numbers of U.S. war casualties and actually highlighting American military setbacks, all the while transparently claiming to “support the troops.” It seems as if that’s their entire contribution to the conduct of the most important foreign-policy initiative in two generations. The importance of—and progress in—the War on Terror is the Number One most misrepresented story of 2005.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    Gearhad said:

    This seems like the library records paranoia.

    Seems like the place to mention my suggestion of anonymous library cards (with a possible extension to credit cards):
    Anonymous Library Cards

    Privacy is not always because of concerns over govenment snooping, but may be a reaction to private firms just knowing too much about us. I’ve stopped using amazon.com because their “customer relationship management” software is just too intrusive.
    Just because I looked up a book for some random reason once, doesn’t mean I want to be reminded of it evey time I log in.

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  • Gearhead

    anonymous library cards (with a possible extension to credit cards)
    Are you serious?

    I’m not sure how that would work. The library needs to know who has what books checked out and when they are due back. Anonymous credit cards? Use cash and coins. Write an IOU and don’t sign it. Start Anonymous Express and issue credit cards without names. Maybe it the next big thing in banking.
    I get the feeling we are all being turned into numbers for the sake of transactions or some marketing gimmick. Everything that counts can’t be counted.

  • Gearhead

    Start a paperless office. You’ll save like fifty cents on ballpoint pens.
    You won’t need staples, so you can use your stapler as a paperless weight.

  • Gearhead

    The war on paper can’t be won without ink.
    Have a happy paperless new year if that’s your thing.

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  • Gaius Arbo

    Oh for heaven’s sake.

    Read the comments on the original story. No law was broken. Period. A very minor technical error of a guideline – not a law. Was it a stupid error? Probably. Could it have been avoided? Certainly. Is it in any way illegal? NO.

    Please at least read the comments. The one person shouting the loudest about it being a violation of law later admitted that it WAS NOT.

    A tiny bit of critical reading, folks. Please.

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  • http://www.billingsnews.com David Crisp

    “Right, David. And Congress should hold hearings and the IT guy should be indicted.”

    Huh? Why would you even say such a thing?

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