You might think deleting your browser’s cookies would stop sites tracking your online habits, but Which? Computing has found that you could still be tracked by the much harder to remove Flash cookies.
You’ve kept up to date with the latest threats to your online privacy and security. You’re aware of the tracking capabilities of standard cookies, and as an online savvy individual you’ve downloaded software to manage and delete those stored in your browser.
But if you think you’re safe from having your internet habits tracked and your data collected for targeted advertising, think again.
An investigation by Which? Computing magazine found that as long as Flash cookies exist, you may be wasting your time managing and deleting your web browser’s cookies.
Beware Flash cookies online
Flash cookies are one type of Local Shared Objects that run inside Adobe Flash Player. Originally designed to store and retrieve user preferences for a better browsing experience, Flash cookies may also be used to invisibly track your online habits. And because they run via Flash player, clearing standard cookies from your browser doesn’t touch them.
Flash cookies collect the same information as standard cookies. However, as they can be as big as 100 kilobytes (KB) compared to a standard cookie’s 4KB, they can store the equivalent of eight A4 pages about us.
This data can be used by websites or third parties to create a detailed profile of a user’s browsing habits for online behavioural advertising, all without their consent.
Worryingly, Flash cookies can then be used to ‘re-spawn’ or reinstate the cookies you had previously deleted, something Adobe has publicly condemned. The Internet Advertising Bureau also thinks this is illegal, as it circumvents the user’s expressed choice not to have these cookies present on their machine.
Tools to remove Flash cookies
Flash cookies can be removed from your computer, but we found it’s not as easy as it should be. Adobe’s own tool, for example, is consumer unfriendly and time-consuming – though Adobe has told us that it’s working to improve consumer’s privacy options.
The Mozilla Firefox add-on BetterPrivacy came out on top, since it can automatically delete Flash cookies once you quit your browser.
We think the privacy implications around Flash cookies and other tracking technologies are so serious that we’re urging the European Commission to ‘future proof’ any incoming legislation to ensure that web users are protected from the nefarious uses of such technology.
Georgina Nelson, our in-house lawyer, had this to say about online tracking tools:
‘We believe that as the online behavioural advertising industry innovates to collect ever more data, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the European Union need to wake up and make provision for the other tracking technologies which are being utilised to avoid detection or removal.’
Do you think it’s right that websites can use Flash cookies to build up an online profile based on your browsing habits? What should be done to stop this invasion of your privacy?