Reports that Google may be drawing up plans for a new way to track Web-browsing consumers backed me into an awkward position: Until yesterday, I didn't really realize that I liked Web cookies.
That might be a bit strong. Let's just say I tolerate them, as the price of doing business. After all, my salary is paid by these crumbs of infomation collected about you as you pass by PCWorld and other IDG sites.
But USA Today's report that Google may be developing plans for an anonymous identifier for advertising, or AdID, should give you an uneasy feeling.
Officially, AdID hasn't moved beyond the development stage. Google spokesman Rob Shilkin described AdID and related programs as "concepts," that are "in the very early stages." Skilkin added, "technological enhancements can improve users' security while ensuring the Web remains economically viable."
Cookies: both familiar and mysterious
Browser cookies have a cute name and have been around long enough to seem familiar, but they remain mysterious. Their code can collect something useful about you: saved preferences, for example. But more often than not, those digital bits have a more self-serving purpose, including tracking your movements across the Web and reporting back to Internet advertising agencies.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this; knowing your wants and preferences allows ad firms to place more relevant ads. Football fanatics might appreciate a beer-and-wings deal at a local pub. A $10 discount at a new online fashion site might lure a new customer.
But neither the ad agencies nor the browser companies have answered the fundamental question: What information does a cookie contain? Even diving deep into your browser doesn't reveal much. In Chrome, enter the Settings menu, then click the "Show advanced settings..." link at the very bottom. In Advanced Settings, click Content Settings and All cookies and site data. There, finally, you'll find a list of cookies, which you can click on to reveal... what, exactly? A string of hexadecimal code? Trying to parse cookies is like trying to read assembly instructions in another language: Through a bit of trial and error, you can make sense of it all. But doing so with tens or hundreds of cookies is an exercise in frustration.
Is Google the answer or the problem?
If you were to place browser cookies on an arbitrary "creepiness" scale, there's still a great deal of room between where things stand now and, say, an NSA agent looking over your shoulder. Google has already pushed increasing transparency onto Android app permissions, forcing developers to disclose what they will do with your data. It's certainly possible that Google could do the same with AdIDs, forcing advertisers to disclose, in simple terms, what information those AdIDs required: relative age, rough location, gender, et cetera. Many people would view that as a good thing. On the other hand, pushing gobs of detailed permissions in front of users arguably numbs them in the same way that most people blindly click through licensing and privacy agreements.
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