DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT A COOKIE IS? IF YOU DON’T ITS TIME TO LEARN.
If you use the internet, well, like you are right now, and you don’t grasp the concept behind “cookies”, grab yourself a couple tangible ones infused …with plenty of chocolate chips and spend five minutes becoming informed. We have done our best to break it down into plain English.
The basic concept of the use of “cookies” by websites is not all sinister. There are many legitimate, practical and beneficial traits a user benefits of the forthright use of this technology.
A reputable trustworthy website storing a small amount of information about your account to allow you to use the website and the services you have subscribed to in a manner that expedites the authentication process and presents the pages in a way that parallels your needs and allows the site to highlight things that you are interested in, instead of navigating through countless other items or pages which have little or no interest to you.
Your bank or credit card provider identifies the computer or computers you use to access your account information in order to protect you from unauthorized access. If you have ever tried to check your bank balance from a computer you do not regularly use, your bank will inform you that you must jump through a few extra hoops in order to log on. This is probably the best example of a helpful pro-end user identifier (cookie)
This type of cookie is no more than a small text file that exists on your computer and contains a unique identifier which is used to pull your database information from the website’s server in an instant and allow you to go about your business.
In its purest sense, it can be, and is, helpful to avoid starting over every time you enter a website. But as you can see the technology that allows a web host to collect the basic information to make your visit personal and hassle free can be expanded exponentially to collect anything and everything about your visit to that website. This is where the concern starts and unfortunately it is the tip of the iceberg.
THE OTHER SHOE DROPS
We have all heard the term “cookies” and we have all heard a slight modification of that household word called a “tracking cookie” These two elements start with the same mechanical process of labeling you or your computer or both, with a unique identifier and are originally created when you visit a website, but a tracking cookies take the concept of assistance on the providers website to another, often sinister level. If not sinister, at the very least, tracking cookies collect more information than you probably want them to.
IN SIMPLE TERMS THIS IS HOW IT WORKS
You visit a site, you willingly give up a bit of information about yourself (although many less reputable sites do not need you to do anything but visit the page to seal your fate) and subsequent to that, the TRACKING cookie begins creating an electronic profile of every website you visit and everything you do on that site, not just the original site or its affiliates. The company behind this process will almost always justify its actions by explaining the collection of data is used for the sole purpose of target marketing. The more they know about what you want to see the better they can serve you by serving your needs exclusively. However this collection of data is widely seen to be an invasion of privacy as a line is crossed when the background collection of personal data goes way beyond the borders of the website you willingly visit and the Terms and Conditions (although you neglected to read) are expanded with vague all-encompassing legal ease to create a grey area caught between legal management of their assets and your rights to privacy.
It does not stop there unfortunately. These tracking cookies, especially the ones configured and placed by content providers who are less than forthright with their motives also collect information that has absolutely nothing to do with visits to any website. Once the tracking cookie is in place, and its complementary puzzle piece exists in a server out there in the world, the data collection process continues and what was left of the privacy you thought you had is gone forever.
Target marketing has its benefits for all of us. We use Social Media advertising to identify a demographic which we find to be desirable by our marketing efforts. Those who fit the demographic will receive our advertisement. There is nothing malicious about it and the large Social Media outlets like WordPress, Facebook,Google+ are forthcoming with elaborate and incredibly efficient marketing tools allowing businesses to drill down to the audience they want to speak to.
These portals which have become part of our everyday life are caught between a world that demands privacy and the same world that is willing to forego some of that privacy in the name of safety against people who want to harm you and I. So to think Word press, Twitter, Facebook or Google is jumping up and down with joy when they are asked to share personal information with a government agency is naive. They do not share this information with contempt for your privacy, but they DO share it, and when asked, they are required to do so by law and as agreed upon when you signed up to become a member. These sites have also become an incredibly efficient way for a personnel department to vet prospective employees.
It is important to know that even if you have never so much as taken a few paperclips from the office. It is not a matter of right or wrong, it is a matter of national security at odds with our right to privacy. We unfortunately cannot have both. This decision was made on the backs of almost 3000 innocent people and the family members of those souls we will forever morn. A tough choice for anyone to make.
Are we stomping on the constitution, perhaps? But the constitution failed to account for a World Wide Web and the technology that could not have been imagined over two hundred years ago. The constitution did not take into account that half a world away, there are groups of people who will gladly become martyrs in order to disrupt our peaceful (not perfect but peaceful) way of life. There is no J. Edgar Hoover philosophy at the head of this dilemma. It is purely a balance of national safety being put in front of your choice to be part of the online community. Beit more of a staple of everyday life more than a choice, the fact remains, your behavior and our behavior once in that community are by choice.
Be discriminating when it comes to sharing personal information. Be aware that the rules of what is public and what is private may change on your profile in any Social Media site you join. They have reserved the right to change the way they operate in the Terms and Conditions, (again, the ones that nobody reads) may have set the default settings to a more open profile status, but they did not remove your ability to back down your profile to a privacy setting you are comfortable with. The fact that Terms and Conditions are lengthy full of legal ease and not always easy to understand is not without its legal challenges. There are wide spread efforts to make the language and scope of the T&Cs easier for a common user to digest. This point will surely be argued and likely reformed to a certain extent in the future, but as they say ignorance of a contractual agreement is no excuse, for now, take the time to learn what you are signing up for.
Do not make online purchases from companies who primarily exist outside of the United States. Our laws have more holes than Swiss cheese but at least we have laws. Visit new websites as if you were visiting a city you have never spent time in before. Stay on the beaten path, stay out of the dark alleys and pay attention to the behavior of your web browser when you are directed to an unfamiliar site. If your gut feeling is tells you it might not be a good place to visit, leave immediately. AND WHEN YOU DO LEAVE, DO NOT SIMPLY “X” OUT of the page.
On your PC’s keyboard, find the alternate button “Alt” hold it down and tap the “F4” key this should close the active page on your screen. A malicious website will often program the X out button to execute an operation other than its intended use. If that fails to close the site, simultaneously hold down the following three keys (Ctrl) (Alt) (Del) which should bring up “task manager”. From there you can view the applications running in your computer and highlight, then end the ones that are not closing.
When a website will not go quietly into the night, chances are really good that they have ulterior motives.
LAST POINT AND LIKELY THE MOST IMPORTANT
If the above mentioned scenario has happened to you in the past or does happen in the future, once you have successfully broken the chains that bound you to the malicious website, you have to make sure that the few seconds you spent there have not resulted in dangerous tracking cookies or even malware.
Malware is so common that we have found some form of rouge applications in about half of the computers serviced for the first time. Malware does more than track your activity, it DICTATES your activity. Your search engine results can become results that are force-fed by the background program running on your computer, you may think your search results are those provided by Google, Bing or Yahoo but they may not be. This is a huge and very dangerous problem and must be dealt with immediately.
If your Google page does not produce auto suggestions as you type them, modifying the potential suggested results after every key stroke, you need to scan your computer. If there are advertisements at the bottom or the top of the page that seem out of place, you have to deal with it. If your computer becomes slow, or pages cannot be displayed on a regular basis there is a real good chance you have problems. If the hard drive indicator light seems to never rest, this too is a red flag.
Keep in mind, if you are an Apple user, the days of carefree web browsing ended several years ago, so everything we have discussed pertains to our Mac friends as well.
Computer platform notwithstanding, when you install an application read each dialog box before pushing the “next” button, uncheck any “complementary applications” the vendor is bundling with the item you desire to install. Limit the desired program to one point of execution, a shortcut on the desktop is more than enough, do not agree to imbed the startup program in your task bar or context menus. You NEED to purchase and maintain a solid virus and web security suite. PURCHASE one, do not rely on the free one your neighbor, the local computer expert swears by. Some free products are harmless, but they are only partially effective. Use a name brand; put things into perspective. You use your computer for EVERYTHING; your banking, your bills, your purchases, your communications, your entertainment just to name a few. So if you are not willing to spend 49 bucks to try and stay safe, you have nobody but to blame but yourself.
For a list of products that have proven to be useful, visit my website http://brooksnetworks.com/saftey.html. We not asking you to purchase the products through our company website although you can use the links to go directly to the vendors without wondering if the link is truly the correct link. If you don’t want to buy peace of mind through the portals, just make sure you buy it somewhere. And BACK UP YOUR DATA, those pictures on your hard drive are priceless, what if you sat down at your computer tomorrow and they were gone? Close the barn doors while your ponies are still in the stalls, and don’t kid yourself, you will never run backups on a regular basis if left to do it yourself. Nobody has the time to do this properly including checking the integrity of your backup and like the 49 bucks you hesitate to spend to protect your entire world from the bad guys, it is silly to turn a blind eye to the value of a service like Carbonite which will allow you to store unlimited amounts of information for a bit over fifty bucks. For less than the price of the keyboard you are using, you can protect your irreplaceable memories no matter how many vacations and birthday parties you have memorialized in pictures on your computer.
Thank you for taking the time to become informed!