How Google Should Respond To Revelation That NSA Uses Its Cookies To Track And Exploit
from the moving-on-now dept
There is value in cookies and being able to track certain user information, but the implementation has been done in a manner that makes it way too easy to let the NSA piggyback on the results.
Image courtesy of Parker Higgins.
An approach that does work is for the tracking entity to use https, the secure web protocol, for its communication with the user’s computer. This ensures that the unique ID that is transmitted is protected by encryption in a way that doesn’t leak to an eavesdropper any information about which connections are to the same user. Implementing https on a larger site is not as easy as it should be, but it seems to be the price of surveillance-proof tracking.For what it's worth "not as easy as it should be" would be considered by some to be something of an understatement. It's not easy, period. But it's becoming increasingly clear that it's something that probably needs to be done. Eight giant internet companies earlier this week took a strong stand on reforming surveillance. To show that they're serious about this, moving to an all HTTPS world would be a very clear step that they're not just saying things, but actually doing things to protect their users' privacy from an overreaching NSA.
Felten also notes another alternative, which would be storing everything on the client side:
Another approach to protecting users is to switch to a method that holds all of the stored information on the client side, that is, in the user’s browser. The idea is that rather than having the server accumulate a record of the user’s activities (or some kind of preference profile based on those activities), you would instead have the user’s browser store the same information for you. This approach is taken by some of the privacy-preserving behavioral advertising systems that have been proposed. If information is accumulated on the user’s own computer, there doesn’t need to be a unique identifier that is sent across the Internet every time the user accesses your site. Instead, you can send encrypted data only at the times you need it. This requires more aggressive re-engineering of an ad or analytics service, but it provides additional benefits to the user in terms of privacy and transparency.As he notes, there are significant challenges there as well, and potential side effects in the way certain things would work, but it is also an approach worth exploring.
Either way, if companies are serious about protecting their users privacy, looking into ways to protect cookie data and stop the NSA cookie monster would be a good start.