[LINK] SMH: Cookies on political websites
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
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
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
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
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
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