Take care of your cookies

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We have all come across apps that ask us if they can use our location or if they can have access to our camera or microphone. Maybe while browsing the internet we have been asked by a website if we will accept its cookies. And we all just click yes and allow without giving it a second thought. But, we should be more careful.

Cookies guidingtech.com
Allowing Cookies

Sometimes we have to think about it. Does this app really need my location data? I can understand that a map application needs my location data but does this app really need it. Why? How will it benefit me? Will it add value to my experience on this app? What other features could be inhibited if I choose not to enable location tracking on this particular app?

Although I definitely think it’s cool to check in on a certain app, and people who follow you on that social media platform will know where you’ve been and what fun things you’ve been up to, people have become more weary of doing this. As the world gets smaller through the use of technology, it becomes easier for a friend of a friend of a friend who is not your friend to also know where you are and what fun things you’ve been up to. So you need to ask yourself whether each application that asks for your location really needs to know where you are all of the time. And then if the answer is yes, how can you regulate that information a bit better?

Ask user's permission to use their location

I was busy learning how to make a simple weather app this week and in it I had to ask the user for permission to use their location. It seems obvious that you would need to know a person’s location to give them the relevant weather forecast. However, it is important that the user is always in control and that critical choices about their data are always made by them. In fact, the weather app that I made gave the user a choice to put in a city name and then get the forecast for that location. And that’s perfectly ok. It may mean that you have to lose a bit of convenience to maintain your privacy, but this should always be your choice.

Choice to enter City Name

It turns out that trade-off between convenience and privacy is quite commonplace on the internet. You certainly have come across a website asking you to accept cookies before and if you like me, you just clicked on it without truly understanding what cookies are. Professor David Malan of Harvard’s CS50 course explains this very eloquently. Cookies are small pieces of data that a website can ask a browser to store on your computer. Then, when you visit this website again using the same browser, the browser will send the cookie back. Like a virtual hand stamp. So it’s like when you at a club and you get hungry and want a snack, you go to the door of the club and the bouncer gives you a hand stamp. That way, when you come back to the club, you won’t have to pay again. And likewise, you won’t have to log in to your favourite websites every day because of cookies.

Yet, it is those very same cookies that allow some commercial websites to include embedded trackers that collect information about your browsing habits. The information collected could be the name of the site, particular products being viewed, and so on. This means that advertising material could be more specifically targeted at a user and is the reason that you sometimes see those creepy adverts about the products you viewed on totally different websites.

This is a questionable practice because you the user may not have fully been aware of the terms of use associated with cookie use for that particular site because the permissions were most likely obscured in a lengthy document.

A congresswoman asked Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai if was able for companies like his own to make this form of agreement more transparent to the user. Mr Pichai appeared in front of congress last Tuesday to answer questions and address allegations for three and half hours. He replied that Google already have a lot of these info videos on their site about how they store and use your data. He did add that they would try to make things even more clearer for the user going forward. I have since looked at Google’s website and it actually has a lot of information (including some wonderfully concise animated videos) about how they use our data.

The same congresswoman added that if companies that use our data are becoming more transparent about how they use it, the onus is on us to actually educate ourselves about this. I for one have no interest in reading a four page terms and conditions or privacy policy, (although I had to read some for the research for this blog) before I accept cookies or allow my location data to be tracked. Therefore I am all for one minute videos explaining these things in a fun, animated way.

Google's informative minute videos

I think it’s in everyone’s best interest if the very smart people we entrust with our personal information, respect us by giving us, an easy to comprehend overview of what it is they need this information for. Then, with this sorted we can go fourth and embrace the challenges and benefits of future pursuits.

Thank you for reading 🙂 (I too, will try to make videos in the future)

References

I used some of the wording recorded in the notes of CS50’s lecture 8.

https://cs50.harvard.edu/college/weeks/8/notes/#logging-in

I found out more about cookies on the website below and used some of their definitions.

http://www.whatarecookies.com

The full video of Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai’s Congressional Hearing can be found at https://youtu.be/WfbTbPEEJxI

I watched the full video to get better context for my research. You of course don’t have to and there are many other summaries of the hearing on YouTube which can be found with a quick Google search.

Definitions

I think I covered everything in the main blog body but if there is anything I missed, please let me know.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Diana Studer says:

    Once a month I delete all cookies. I don’t need a site I dipped into to track me indefinitely.

    Like

    1. Francois Majola says:

      That is good advice. I try to log out of my gmail account after a browsing session too. Password managers make it so much easier to log back in later. Thanks for your insights.

      Like

  2. Tiny Dawn Gunners says:

    I needed to know this, I feel like a have been hoarding cookies working against me.

    Like

    1. Francois Majola says:

      Thanks for reading 🙏🏾

      Like

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