Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

computer spy animationYou may have heard of cookies. They’re delicious morsels that come in flavors like chocolate chip and gingerbread, right? In this case, however, I’m talking about the itsy bitsy files that are deposited on your hard drive as you browse the Web. Some are harmless. Some are sleuths, tracking your every virtual move, then reporting that information to marketing companies. And apparently, many consumers who think they know how to delete cookies, are failing to sweep up some important crumbs.

WorldPrivacyForum.org explains:

If you have filled out forms online with your real name and contact information, or have clicked on banners then purchased an item, or if you have filled out sweepstakes or contests forms, then it is quite possible that major online advertisers know your name and have associated it with your Internet Protocol, or IP address and other information.Companies that hold this profiling information of your Web browsing habits can then sell or merge that information with many other sources of information, such as magazine or catalog subscription lists. Even though cookies seem quite innocent, allowing the tracking types of cookies to follow you around as you surf the Web is a lot like building a see-through house to live in, click by click.

And let’s not forget sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, which offer advertisers an easy way to obtain information about you.

Many computer users know they can delete cookies. (The function usually appears under “Tools” in your Web browser.) But according to a recent article by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, some online ad companies have figured out a workaround – Adobe Flash cookies. Apparently, Flash cookies aren’t stored in the same place as the more conventional HTTP cookies. A group of U.C. Berkeley researchers found that the most Flash cookies are used extensively by popular sites – and that most users don’t know how to delete them. Furthermore, Flash cookies will sometimes “respawn” deleted HTTP cookies.

"That means that privacy-sensitive consumers who 'toss' their HTTP cookies to prevent tracking or remain anonymous are still being uniquely identified online by advertising companies," according to the study.eavesdrop

WorldPrivacyForum.org has helpful information about how to opt-out of cookies, including downloading a type of file called, appropriately enough, an opt-out cookie. Marketing companies make these special opt-out cookies available to address privacy concerns. The WorldPrivacyForum.org site makes it easy to download these opt-out cookies by including links to the download sites on Yahoo Ad Network, Doubleclick (Google) and other advertisers.

Another option is Network Advertising Initiative, a one-stop, opt-out system to crush certain types of not-so-savory cookies. According to WorldPrivacyForum.org, this program has a few kinks and the success can depend on which browser you’re using.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recommends a Firefox plug-in called TACO (Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out).

Windows users might want to try CCleaner, a free program that will clean up temporary files, cookies and even the Windows  registry. It works with Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera and Safari.

You can check to see if Flash cookies and other kinds of “super cookies” are disabled by clicking this link to the ISEC Partners Web site.

Lastly, if you know your way around a computer, here are the places that Wired.com says you can find Flash cookies.

  • Windows: LSO files are stored typically with a “.SOL” extension, within each user’s Application Data directory, under Macromedia\FlashPlayer\#SharedObjects. (Note: You can find the Application Data folder under "Document and Settings." Your folder might be hidden, though; if so, you'll need to go to "Tools" and "Folder Options" to make it visible.)
  • Mac OS X: For Web sites, ~/Library/Preferences/Macromedia/FlashPlayer. For AIR Applications,
    ~/Library/Preferences/[package name (ID)of your app]
    and ~/Library/Preferences/Macromedia/FlashPlayer/macromedia.com/Support/flashplayer/sys
  • GNU-Linux: ~/.macromedia

Talk about It: Got anything to add? Please post a comment.

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