[LINK] SMH: Cookies on political websites

Roger Clarke Roger.Clarke at xamax.com.au
Mon Nov 8 09:18:40 AEDT 2010

[Top of page 1 of the Herald today]

Cookie monsters: browser beware as political websites plant spy devices
Date: November 08 2010
The Sydney Morning Herald
Nicky Phillips


Politicians are letting foreign-owned companies covertly gather 
information about voters.

The websites of Barry O'Farrell, Kristina Keneally, Tony Abbott and 
the Greens plant spying devices on visitors' computers, which can 
track them as they browse the internet.

Information gathered about a user's online behaviour can be used to 
build detailed profiles to help target advertisements - a practice 
many believe is a threat to privacy.
Online tracking is done mainly by cookies (text files) and beacons 
(invisible images).

The devices allow a third-party company to see which elements of a 
page the user has clicked on, potentially identifying information 
held in the URL, such as an email address.

A tracking device, owned by Yahoo! and dated to expire in 2037, was 
planted on this website's test computer when visiting the website of 
the federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

The site of the Premier, Kristina Keneally, placed devices owned by 
ShareThis, a company that collects information about online habits.

All four websites planted YouTube cookies, even though this website's 
computer did not play any videos.

Outrage in the US over YouTube cookies placed by the White House's 
website last year prompted the company to develop videos that let 
publishers choose if cookies are planted.

The websites of Ms Keneally, Mr Abbott and the Greens also planted 
flash cookies which can hold more data than standard cookies. They 
also have no expiration date and are stored on an external server, 
which makes them difficult for users to detect or delete.

The NSW Liberal Party, which administers Mr O'Farrell's website, said 
it used analytic devices to find out which parts of its sites 
visitors were engaging with.

The ALP said thousands of websites used tools such as Google and 
YouTube every day. "If there are any issues around the processes 
undertaken by ShareThis ... NSW Labor would be very interested in 
investigating,'' said an ALP spokeswoman.

None of the websites mentioned third-party tracking devices in their 
privacy policies.

A spokesman from Mr Abbott's office said any questions about what 
third-party cookies collect should be directed to those companies.

ShareThis and YouTube said users were able to delete or disable 
third-party cookies.
The information these devices gather is considered anonymous because 
it identifies browsing software, not individuals.

The Australian Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, said aggregated 
data might enable identification of individuals.

A cyber law researcher at the University of NSW, David Vaile, said 
data collectors were developing extremely sophisticated tools. 
''Unless you've got a detector or know what you're looking for, you 
won't know they are there.''

Do you know more? nphillips at smh.com.au

Roger Clarke                                 http://www.rogerclarke.com/
Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd      78 Sidaway St, Chapman ACT 2611 AUSTRALIA
                    Tel: +61 2 6288 1472, and 6288 6916
mailto:Roger.Clarke at xamax.com.au                http://www.xamax.com.au/

Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre      Uni of NSW
Visiting Professor in Computer Science    Australian National University

More information about the Link mailing list