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Cookie Management: Shouldn’t the government be setting an example?

 

Recently ‘The Register’ alongside ‘Cookiebot’ posted up an article highlighting that 82% of European Union government websites and 52% of public health service websites use tracking and advertising cookies.

So why the concern?

As ‘The Register’ article questions should sensitive information be sold onto third-party companies to provide targeted adverts from government or health service websites? Consider the following:

If you are browsing an online retailer about purchasing a new sofa, would you mind this generic information being used to provide targeted adverts highlighting the sofa/company you have been looking at? Most cases people wouldn’t mind seeing an odd advert pointing out something they have previously looked at. If anything, you might find it slightly annoying.

Now imagine you are browsing the web to try and find out information that is personal to yourself and your wellbeing. For example, “How can I quit smoking?”. Do you really want this information selling onto third party companies to add targeted advertisements, so that the next time you visit a generic website you see adverts about nicotine replacements? You might think great it’ll keep promoting me to quit smoking but what happens if it was more personal information? What happens if you are searching for “Methods for coping with depression” or “how can I tell if I have diabetes?”. Do you want adverts that could potentially point you in the wrong direction? If you had type 2 diabetes, for example, it could be potentially harmful to see adverts advising how to cope with type 1 diabetes. 

So how do they do it?

This process of tracking and monitoring browsing behaviours occurs using internet cookies and more specifically third-party cookies.

So, what is a cookie?

Some people imagine cookies are evil spying programs used by external companies to track everything you do on the internet. Or that they are a data mining tool used to scan through your hard drive to read all your personal information. Well if you think this is the case then you will be happy to know you are wrong.

A cookie isn’t a piece of software at all. It is simply a text file, or row in a database dependant on what operating system/browser you are using version, that lives on your computer. Their job is simply to store relevant information about the website that you are currently browsing and send that information back and forth between the browser and web server.

So, they are not evil?

Cookies are designed to improve your browsing experience plain and simple. Without them, the current browser simply would not work as we have gotten used to. You wouldn’t be able to reserve tickets for your favourite band or book that next summer holiday.

However, it depends on what your opinion is on organizations being able to buy information related to your browsing habits. If you hate those spam emails that constantly litter your email box, then third-party cookies can be seen in a similar light. Along with personal preferences cookies are used as a marketing technique to add personalized advertisements and popups in your browsing session.

But I didn’t agree to that?

Well, unfortunately you did. Since the introduction of European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) a law was put in place to control the unauthorized cookies being used to track your online browsing. You should have noticed by now that whenever you browse a website you have come across a pop up stating something along the lines of “This site uses cookies for analytics, personalizing content and advertisements.  By browsing this site, you agree to this use”. At which point you have little option to either accept the pop-up or close it down. This is thanks to GDPR, it gives you the option to opt out, but rarely does it provide you the granularity to control which cookies are applied.

Conclusion

It seems wrong that the governments across Europe are trying to enforce companies to abide by the GDPR whilst still using these well-known tracking and advertising companies on their own websites. Cookies were originally introduced to provide users with a consistent experience and have developed further into what people perceive as good and bad cookies.

The question people in the industry are now beginning to ask is are cookies being used for a more sinister purpose? And, should local governments and health care services be doing more to set a better example on browsing privacy?

David Bell (Avanite Software Developer)

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