Web Tracking “Cookies” to Protect Privacy: Inventor
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San Francisco (AFP) – The data-tracking “cookies” at the heart of online privacy concerns were intended to protect people rather than serve as cyber spies, their inventor told AFP.
Californian engineer and entrepreneur Lou Montulli said the original “cookie” he created decades ago was intended to make life easier online by allowing websites to remember visitors.
Yet the technology has become a lightning rod, under attack for helping tech companies collect data on consumer habits, critical to the multi-billion dollar-a-year targeted web advertising business.
“My invention is at the technological heart of many adware programs, but it wasn’t intended,” said Montulli, who created them in 1994 while an engineer at Netscape.
“It’s just a core technology to make the web work,” he said.
Google this week joined a growing list of tech companies in announcing a new plan to block certain types of cookies, after the online advertising giant’s previous proposals were roundly criticized.
When discussing his invention, Montulli said that snippets of software that allow a website to recognize individuals helped make possible features such as automatic logins or remembering the contents of commerce shopping carts. electronic.
Without so-called “first party” cookies – which are also used by websites to interact directly with visitors – every time someone logs in, they would be treated as their first time.
But Montulli pointed to issues with so-called “third-party” cookies, those generated by websites and hidden in visitors’ browsers, and ad networks that aggregate data from those snippets.
“It is only through collusion between many websites and an ad network that ad tracking is allowed,” Montulli explained.
Websites share activity data with ad networks, which then use it to target ads to all of their members.
Arms race of online advertisements
“If you search for a weird niche product and then you’re bombarded with ads for that product on a number of websites, that’s a weird experience,” Montulli said.
“It’s normal human recognition of forms to think that if they know I was looking for blue suede shoes, they must know all about me and then think I want to get away with it.”
If a network website also collects personally identifiable information about a user, such as a name or email address, this could be “disclosed” in a way that allows a browser to be associated to a person.
“It’s a network effect of all these different websites that associate with ad trackers,” Montulli said. “Cookies were originally designed to provide privacy.”
He said one possible response would be to stop targeting ads and start charging subscriptions for online services, which run on online advertising revenue.
Montulli also supports phasing out third-party cookies, but warned that phasing out snippets altogether would encourage advertisers to use stealthier tactics.
“Advertising will find a way,” he said. “It will become a technology arms race; with billions of dollars at stake, the advertising industry will do what it needs to to keep the lights on.”
Disabling third-party cookies could also unwittingly punish small websites by excluding them from targeted ads that make money, giving even more power to tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook parent Meta.
Regulations that keep cookies in use, imposing controls such as the ability for users to opt in or out of data sharing, may be the only viable long-term solution, Montulli said.
“You really couldn’t use the web without cookies,” he said. “But, we’re going to have to be more nuanced about how they’re used in advertising.”
© 2022 AFP