Cookie problems

It’s been ten years since the original EU ePrivacy Directive (Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning the respect for private life and the protection of personal data in electronic communications and repealing Directive 2002/58/EC) came into effect in the UK. It’s implement as part of the equally wordy Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2012 (PECR) One thing it did was require companies with websites to allow users to opt in to cookies. I’ve written about this before, but since then the amount of tracking cookies has become insane, and most people would choose to opt out of that much survailance.

The problem is that with so many cookies, some websites have effectively circumvent the law by making it impractical to opt out of all of them. At first glance they offer an easy way to turn everything off and “save settings”, but what’s not so clear is that they hide an individual option for every tracking cookie company they have a deal with. And there can be hundreds, each of which needs to be individually switched off using a mouse.

These extra cookies – and they’re the ones you don’t want – are usually hidden behind a “vendors” or “partners” tab. With the site shown below this was only found by scrolling all the way down and clicking on a link.

This kind of thing is not in the spirit of the act, and web sites that do this do not “care about your privacy” in any way, shape or form. And if you think these opt-in/out forms look similar, it’s because they are. Consent Management Platforms like Didomi, OneTrust and Quantcast are widely used to either set, or obfuscate what you’re agreeing to.

An update to the ePrivicy directive is now being talked about that says it must be “easy” to reject these tracking cookies, which isn’t the case now.

Meanwhile some governments are cracking down. In January, Google and Facebook both got slapped with huge fines in France from the
Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés, which reckoned that because it took more clicks to reject cookies than accept them, Google and Facebook were not playing fair.

“Several clicks are required to refuse all cookies, against a single one to accept them. [The committee] considered that this process affects the freedom of consent: since, on the internet, the user expects to be able to quickly consult a website, the fact that they cannot refuse the cookies as easily as they can accept them influences their choice in favor of consent. This constitutes an infringement of Article 82 of the French Data Protection Act.”

Please generate and paste your ad code here. If left empty, the ad location will be highlighted on your blog pages with a reminder to enter your code. Mid-Post

I’m inclined to agree. And on top of a fines of €150 and €60 respectively, they’re being hit with €100K for each extra day they allow the situation to remain.

Unfortunately we’re not likely to see this in the UK. The EU can’t actually agree on the final form of the ePrivacy regulations. The UK, of course, is no longer in the EU and may be able to pass its own laws while the EU argues.

Last year the Information Commissioner’s office did start on this, taking proposals to the G7 in September 2021. Elizabeth Denham told the meeting that a popup with a button saying “I Agree” wasn’t exactly informed consent.

However, this year the government is going in the other direction. It’s just published plans to do away with the “cookie popup” and allow websites to slurp your data. Instead sites will be required to give users clear information on how to opt out. This doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Also in the proposals is to scrap the need for a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) before slurping data, replacing it with a “risk-based privacy management programme to mitigate the potential risk of protected characteristics not being identified”.

I don’t like the idea of any of this. However, there’s a better solution – simply use a web browser that rejects these tracking cookies in the first place.

TLS used in web browsers is vulnerable to cookie grabbing

I heard something really worrying yesterday – someone’s got a proof-of-concept that defeats TLS (previously known as SSL) encryption. Security researchers Thai Duong and Juliano Rizzo are planning to demonstrate this at Ekoparty in Argentina this week.

Fortunately this isn’t as bad as it sounds as it doesn’t actually involve breaking TLS, but it’s still pretty bad. It only applies to some web browsers, but it does allow the theft of supposedly encrypted login cookies and it seems to me a very practical method, although details aren’t officially published as yet. Basically, it involves putting some Javascript on a web site which causes the browser to fetch something from the site being targeted – say Paypal. The browser sends the request, encrypted along with the login cookie – compressed and then encrypted using TLS. You can’t read what’s in the TLS packets, but you can see how long they are.

Fundamentally, compression works by removing repeated information found in the uncompressed data. Therefore if you have repetition, the data compresses better. By making a number of requests for differing data (like bogus image file names) you’ll know by the size of the compressed packet if data in the unknown login cookie contains data repeated in the file requested simply because the combined encrypted packet will get shorter. In other words, because the unknown cookie and known file request are compressed into the same packet, you can determine whether there is any repetition simply by comparing the size of the compressed data – when it gets shorter you’ve got a match. Apparently you need make as few a six bogus requests for each letter in the login cookie to work out its contents.

You obviously need to be eavesdropping on the line, and your victim must be running your Javascript on their browser, but as TLS is there to prevent eavesdropping then this is a serious failure. It’s not the fault of TLS, but that of browser protocol writers, hoping that implementing TLS gives them security without further consideration.

Some people have suggested that this attack would be difficult to implement in practice, but I disagree. Why not simply hijack the DNS at an Internet Cafe (with a fake DCHP server) and force everyone to run the Javascript from the first web site they tried to open, and either snoop the WiFi or sniff the packets off the wire using traditional methods of circumventing switches.

Apparently this flaw doesn’t affect IE, but the others were vulnerable until tipped off about it. Make sure you’re running a current version

Panicky public gets scammer’s charter for cookie law

Are you worried about websites you visit using cookies? If so, you’re completely wrong; probably swept up in a tide of hysteria whipped up by concerned but technically ignorant campaigners. The Internet is full of such people, and the EU politicians have been pandering to them because politicians are a technically illiterate bunch too.

A cookie is a note that is stored by your web browser to recall some information you’ve entered in to a web site. For example, it might contain (effectively) a list of things you’ve added to your shopping cart while browsing, or the login name you entered. Web sites need them to interact, otherwise they can’t track who you are from one page to another. (Well there are alternatives, but they’re cumbersome).

So what’s the big deal? Why is there a law coming in to force requiring you to give informed consent before using a web site that needs cookies? Complete pig-ignorance and hysteria from the politicians, that’s why.

There is actually a privacy issue with cookies – some advertisers that embed parts of their website in another can update their cookies on your machine to follow you from one web site to another. This is a bit sneaky, but the practice doesn’t require cookies specifically, although they do make it a lot easier. These are known as tracking cookies. However, this practice is not what the new law is about.

So, pretty much every small business with a web site created more than 12 months ago (when this was announced) or written by a “web developer” that probably didn’t even realise how their CMS used cookies, is illegal as from today. Probably including this one (which uses WordPress). Nonetheless, head of the ICO’s project on cookies, Dave Evans, is still “planning to use formal undertakings or enforcement notices to make sites take action”.

What’s actually going to happen is that scamming “web developers” will be contacting everyone  offering to fix their illegal web sites for an exorbitant fee.

The ICO has realised the stupidity of its initial position and now allows “implied consent” – in other words if you continue to use a web site that uses cookies you will be considered to have consented to it. Again, this is a nonsense as the only possible problem cookies are tracking cookies, and these come from sources other than the web site you’re apparently looking at – e.g. from embedded adverts.

So – if you want to continue reading articles on this blog you must be educated enough to know what a cookie is and not mind about them. As an extra level of informed concent you must presumably agree that Dave Evans of the ICO and his whole department is an outrageous waste of tax-payers money. (In fareness to Dave Evans, he’s defending a daft EU law because that’s his job – its the system and not him, but he’s also paid to take the flack).