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).

Google is innocent (ish)

So Google’s streetview cars have been driving around harvesting people’s email passwords have they? Well this is probably true. Let’s sue/fine/regulate them!

Actually, let’s not. They haven’t done anything wrong. What Google’s surveying vehicles did was record the wireless Ethernet radio activity as they went along, to get an idea of where the WIFI hotspots are. This is a really useful thing for someone to have done – there’s no other way to find out what’s really where than by doing a ground-level survey.

In order to determine what kind of service they’re receiving you need to record a bit of the traffic for analysis. If it’s a private service, this traffic will be encrypted so it really doesn’t matter a jot – they’d be mostly recording gibberish. If it’s an open, public service they’d get the clear text of whatever happened to be transmitted at the time if the luser’s weren’t using application-layer encryption. If some technological dunderhead decides to do a radio broadcast of his unencrypted passwords, Google (and anyone else in the vicinity) will end up receiving that too.

Look at it another way – if someone wrote their password on a big sign and stuck it in the front of their house, anyone walking down the road couldn’t help but capture it. Are the pedestrians doing something wrong, or is the owner of the house an idiot?

It’s no good the idiots bleating on about Google. That won’t give them brains. It might, however, give them some of Google’s money and this could be the real motive.

The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, has come up with some surprising statements about Google. But on review, they’re only surprising to someone understanding the technical issues here. Does this mean Graham is a technological klutz? It’s one theory – at times it seems like everyone the government appoints to deal with technology requires this as a qualification. However I think it’s far more likely a case of bowing to media/political pressure on the subject and wishing to be seen to be doing something about it.

Then, last Friday, Google signed an undertaking with the Information Commissioner’s Office to train their staff that they mustn’t do naughty things (just in case they were ever tempted). In return for this the ICO promises to leave them alone. Read it for yourself – it’s only three pages long.

What’s sad about the whole affair is that the ICO is, first and foremost, a political/media driven entity even if there are some level heads at work behind the scenes. But what a waste of time and money…