Tracking: it's not just for the NSA anymore

A couple of weeks ago, it was reported that the NSA used something called "persistent cookies" on their website to track the behavior of users visiting the site. Now, CNet has a report up saying that it's not just the NSA that that's keeping an eye on you -- it's dozens of governmental agencies, all misusing cookies and storing various levels of behavior and information on you.

Three questions pop up immediately: 1.) what are persistent cookies, 2.) why is it a big deal, and 3.) what does it mean for me? I'll try to tackle each of these as best I can:


1. What are "persistent cookies?" First, a quick definition of cookies: they're small text files that a website places on your computer for a number of reasons, from tracing your behavior while you're on the site to letting you personalize how you view the site. (More on cookies from Wikipedia, thankfully gender-slur-free.) Persistent cookies are ones that have been given a date to expire a long time from now, such as 30 years; other cookies delete themselves when you close your browser, or other similar temporary time-limits.

2. Why is this a big deal? You may remember, from the early days of popular web-browsing, the first furor over the use of cookies by advertising sites to document a user's performance and thus target them with appropriate ads. Since then, rules have been set in place about what cookies are allowed to do and not do. While it may be difficult in our heads to leave it up to a company to comply with those privacy rules, most don't want to risk a PR disaster by doing things that break those rules.

The thing about the NSA using persistent cookies is that, oh... it's illegal. Government agencies aren't allowed to use them, unless there's "sufficient need," in which case they have to display their use of cookies very clearly on the site. As Peter Swire said in the AP article, "...Vague assertions of national security, such as exist in the NSA policy, are not sufficient."

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