What kind of information do websites store locally on my computer?
Websites, and this is almost all websites and not just Google, store little text files in your browsers local storage called Cookies. A Cookie is a machine-readable (not human readable, so you don’t have to worry about someone opening your computer and reading all your private information). For instance, here is the contents of a Cookie set on my machine by the site AccuRadio (an online radio provider):
|Send For:||Any kind of connection|
|Accessible to Script:||Yes|
|Created:||Tuesday, January 17, 2012 5:27:57 PM|
|Expires:||Tuesday, January 15, 2013 5:27:57 PM|
So, you can tell what site it came from, when it was created, when it expires, and…well, that’s pretty much it. The information about me is encrypted in that long string of numbers and letters near the top. So what does all this mean? Not a whole lot, in and of itself. Very few sites these days actually store anything more on your computer than a user id. This user id is linked to a profile in their central database which contains information that these sites use to do things like personalize your experience, allow you to customize the appearance of websites, or (in the case of AccuRadio) make it easier for me to get to my favorite station (“Modern Rock Classics: 90’s Alternative”).
Can I make my cookies go away?
So if all a cookie stores is a user id, why the fuss?
Even though your local machine just stores a user id, that user id is linked to a database located on the servers for whatever website placed the cookie on your computer. These databases store information on your interactions with a website. For example, Amazon.com uses the user id stored in the cookie on your computer to save the contents of your shopping cart so that if you leave the site and then come back a couple of days later, you can continue shopping right where you left off.
Many websites use a cookie with a visitor id and a linked central database to track activities of users on their websites. Google, for instance, records what you search for, what ads you click on, and how much time you spend on various pages, and other information that is detailed in their privacy policies. Despite the ominous-sounding nature of this, it is no worse than what happens when you enter a store that is under video surveillance. It is also important to keep in mind that Google and other sites can’t collect any information on you that you are not willing to give them, usually through some sort of registration mechanism. So if you use Google while you’re not logged in, all they have is your i.p. address and anonymous data on a generic “visitor” that cannot be linked to you unless for some reason they can convince your internet service provider to disclose the identity behind the i.p. address.
What will this mean for you? Not a whole lot, initially. In fact, most people won’t even notice. In the future, though, Google has made it public that they plan to combine data from various sources to make their applications more intuitive and more functional. The example they give is if you have a meeting scheduled in your Google Calendar, they will be able to pop up a reminder letting you know to leave early because they combined your location from Google Latitude on your cell phone with traffic information from Google Maps with the location of the meeting. Some people are spooked by this. Personally, I think it’s a great service, and is one step closer to the kind of seamless integration of life and technology that the Jetsons promised decades ago.
Can I opt-out of this?
It depends on what you mean by opt-out. Can you continue using Google’s services the way you have been without being subject to their new policies? No, nor should you be able to. Can you think of a single brick and mortar business that would let you walk into their stores and do whatever you wanted and expect to be exempt from their store policies? Of course not. To go back to the “premises under surveillance” example, it would be like walking into a convenience store that had security cameras on and demanding that they turn everything off while you’re in the store.
If you want to have your cake and eat it too, there are tricks to making sure that Google can’t track you. First, as we’ve mentioned, most browsers allow you to monitor every cookie a website tries to place on your computer and allow or deny them one by one. Another option is to disable cookies entirely, although doing so will severely limit your ability to do things like log in to your favorite video streaming site or online bank. Another option is to use your browsers “incognito” mode (as Google’s Chrome calls it). Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Chrome all have options to enter an anonymous browsing mode that limits the kinds of cookies that can be placed on your computer, as well as erases all cookies the minute you close the browser (and also limits what they place in your browsers history folder). Finally, for those that want to completely disappear, there are programs like Tor, called proxies, that allow you to disguise the location of your computer by sending signals through one or more intermediaries before they get to the website you are trying to visit.
Are there any less-intrusive options?
Not really. While browsers and websites exist that claim to be either completely anonymous or to protect your privacy, the reality is that every website you visit collects information about you. The reason Google is raising such a fuss is primarily because we’ve all come to rely on Google so much for so many different facets of our lives. In doing so, we forget that their services aren’t really “free”. We may not pay in money, but we do pay them in information, which to a company that bases its revenue on advertising is just as good. Considering how many wonderfully useful products we get out of the deal, I consider this a pretty good trade. After all, the real measure of how “evil” or “intrusive” a company is not how much information they have on us but what they do with it. So far, Google has not given any indication that they have ever misused our information, or have any plans to do so.
What does it all mean?