Flash cookies and privacy

If you are concerned about your online privacy, then you should already know about “cookies” — small files that are stored on your computer that websites write information to.   These cookies are largely used to help with the functionality of the website, maintaining your “session” as you move around the site.  They can also store your login information, so you don’t have to enter your username and password each time.   On the negative side of things, they can also be used to track you, recording what you choose each time you visit the site.   And there are “tracking site” cookies used mostly by advertising sites.   Because many websites have advertising on them, and many are from the same large advertising companies, those ad companies can “track” you on the websites that you visit, along with what you might have done on those “partner” sites.

There are multiple ways to handle cookies, but here is just one quick solution. If you use Firefox, you can still have the postive aspects of cookies, but have them deleted each time you close the browser — so, it’s like starting fresh each time with the website.   You can control your cookies in Firefox by going to Tools, Options, Privacy (in Mac it’s File, Preferences, Privacy), and “Keep Cookies Until I Close Firefox”.

So, you think you are free of cookies then, right?!   Not really.   You may be still being tracked using “Flash cookies” — cookies that Adobe’s Flash program uses.   Flash is what makes the videos on YouTube work, and are also some of the MOST ANNOYING ADS on the Internet.

How do you manage those Flash cookies?  Well, it’s a bit more complicated, since to do it easily you have to visit Adobe’s website to see what’s on your computer.   (The cookies are on YOUR computer, but to see them easily, you need to visit their website.)   Once there, you should see the list of all the Flash cookies stored on your computer.  You may be surprised, as I was, at the number of sites storing these cookies.

Prevent ALL Flash Cookies
Prevent ALL Flash Cookies

You can “Delete All” the cookies, thereby starting from scratch with each site for their cookies.   You can also choose to NOT allow third-party websites to store cookies by unchecking the option.   As mentioned above, blocking cookies can make some sites not function correctly.   For me, this includes one of my favorite sites, www.pandora.com‘s streaming radio.  😦

Some other ways to help eliminate Flash cookies — besides not allowing them completely — is to use some Firefox extensions:

  • Adblock Plus:  a WONDERFUL extension that helps eliminate LOTS of unwanted advertising.  Install it, sign up for a free “subscription” (to keep it up to date), and enjoy the web again! (Some have complained that this add-on “steals” from website owners who use advertising to support their site.  I would say that if your site only relies on easily-blockable, web-based ads to support it, then you’ve got a weak business model.)
  • NoScript:  will load websites with Javascript and plug-ins (like Flash) turned OFF automatically.   You can then choose which elements YOU want to add in.   This is a little more complicated to use, but just as excellent!  You can eliminate lots of nasties on websites you aren’t familiar with, simply by installing this.  Once you are sure of the website, add it to the “whitelist” and you’ll get the full functionality again.

Those two add-ons mean that you are limiting your exposure to Flash cookies to the site you DO want, not as it is currently, allowing any website to add Flash cookies to your computer.

Hope that helps!

Additional Information:

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