Saturday, February 5, 2011

So, you think your computer system blocks cookies. It doesn't.

You use a cookie remover to get rid of them. Great. But what
about supercookies?

   Supercookies are tracking devices placed on your computer that
track where you have been on-line. Companies can track a pattern
of your site visits.

   These supercookies can be removed from your hard drive, but
not without specialized software.


Early yesterday morning, I searched an obscure product: a connector that lets a USB/parallel port cable interface with my ancient Hewlett Packard LaserJet 1100. I bought it. (Note: one site sold it for $12. Amazon sold it for $4 plus shipping. Amazon is amazing.)
I then cleared my history cache. I do this, because with Membergate software, which runs my site, a full memory can trigger the dreaded 2-minute warning more often. I don't know why.
Then I went to Google News. I found an article on the Egyptian rebellion. It appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
I noticed an ad on the right. It was for Tiger Direct. I have bought from the company on occasion. But this caught my eye: the ad was a rotating series of ads for -- get this -- USB/parallel printer cables.,0,7829932.story
If you click the link to the article, as I just did, you may get this ad.

This is also the ad I got when I clicked through to the story from another computer. I had done no search relating to printer cable/connectors on that computer.My conclusion: Google knew that I had recently done a search for an obscure product. Despite the fact that I had cleared my history files, Google posted a rotating series of ads that promoted a very similar product line. How Google pulled together the series of displays, I have no idea. If Tiger Direct has them pre-packaged as a unit to post automatically, its software must aggregate very cheap products into a batch.
Note to Tiger Direct: the mini-ads scrolled by too fast.
As a marketer, I really do appreciate the narrow band of products. To cut costs of running ads by targeting the exact audience that is shopping for it is a great benefit. I do not pay for eyes that do not notice or care.
As a consumer, I also appreciate it. Why waste my time on ads unrelated to what I am shopping for?
But as a privacy-conscious person, I am astounded at the degree of invasion that this experience indicates exists at Google. It knows what I have been searching for. It remembers. I wonder how long it retains this information? I had already made the purchase.
If Google can identify me this easily to sell a printer cable connector, then what else will it try to sell me? Or you?
Yesterday, I switched to Firefox. I did so because I am having Google search problems with IE8 -- as long as 15 seconds per search, and 15 seconds clicking BACK. This IE8 glitch just began. Firefox is instantaneous.
Yesterday afternoon, I was talking with a techie genius friend. He told me about supercookies. What are supercookies, you ask? They are also called Flash cookies and LSOs (local shared objects). They are cookies on steroids. Here is an extract from Wikipedia. Note: YouTube and just about every other large site use Flash cookies.
Flash Players use a sandbox security model. With the default settings, Adobe Flash Player does not seek the user's permission to store LSO files on the hard disk. LSOs contain cookie-like data stored by individual web sites or domains. Indeed, as with cookies, online banks, merchants or advertisers may use LSOs for tracking purposes.The current version of Flash does not allow 3rd party LSOs to be shared across domains. For example, an LSO from "" cannot be read by the domain "".
However, any domain can read the master LSO, which contains a listing of all LSO placing websites visited.
LSOs can be used by web sites to collect information on how people navigate those web sites even if people believe they have restricted the data collection. More than half of the internet's top websites use LSOs to track users and store information about them. There is relatively little public awareness of LSOs, and they can usually not be deleted by the cookie privacy controls in a web browser. This may lead a web user to believe a computer is cleared of tracking objects, when it is not.
You can get rid of them. An add-on for Firefox is BetterPrivacy. After downloading it, I clicked here: Tools>Add-ons There was BetterPrivacy. I left-clicked it. Up popped a list of hundreds of LSOs on my hard drive. I clicked Remove All LSOs. They disappeared. Now whenever I close Firefox, any new ones will be removed.
A rival product, Privacy+ also will do this. But I am satisfied with BetterPrivacy.
I will post more on this as I use them. If you decide to give these a test drive on your hard drive, report your experiences on my new forum: computer privacy.
The easy way out of tracking by Google is Scroogle, which piggybacks on Google but scrapes the record after 48 hours.
A competitor is StartPage.
I have posted this as a free article. Forward it to anyone you think might not want this degree of vulnerability. I do not think most people know about this.

courtesy Gary North

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