Friday, September 24, 2010

Your web surfing privacy gone in a Flash

Privacy is a big issue these days when it comes to using the internet.

With identity theft on the rise and increasing numbers of web-based networks wanting to track your every online move, people have become very conscious of the need to keep a weather-eye on just what cookies are stored on your computer.

As most Net-savvy people know, a cookie is a small set of data that is used to "tag" your browser so that it can be recognized as a unique computer as you move around the Net.

Many websites issue cookies that identify you solely to make life easier -- by automatically logging you back on when you return or by keeping track of other information specific to your online identity.

However, with the increased use and abuse of cookies, most web-browsers now offer the ability to surf in "privacy mode" or similar. When this happens, the cookies that websites send to your computer are only kept for the current browsing session then automatically deleted.

Most browsers also offer a very simple way to peruse and delete any cookies that might have previously been sent to your computer.

That all sounds fine and dandy doesn't it?

Except for one thing... Adobe's Flash.

Flash is a plug-in which provides some wonderful extra functionality when browsing the web. Animated graphics, enhanced interactivity and and other features are the reasons why web-designers have flocked to Flash in their droves. These days it's pretty hard to find a website that doesn't include at least a few Flash-based applets on its pages.

Unfortunately for those who like to protect, or at least monitor their privacy, Flash doesn't play by the same rules as your browser.

Even with your browser in "privacy mode", the Flash plugin continues to accept, store and regurgitate its own cookies when requested to by websites you might visit.

Clearly, given how ubiquitous Flash has become, this scuttles the whole utility of any "privacy mode" that might exist on your system. What's more, because Flash has its own stash of cookies, you can't even tell what has already been saved to your machine by asking your browser.

So how do you avoid falling victim to Flash's disregard for your privacy?

Well you can fit a Flash-blocker plug-in which will disable all Flash applets encountered on webpages you might visit. You can of course activate those applets if you need or want to but some of the more sinister ones which are responsible for issuing and requesting the cookies are sometimes invisible and need not be running in order to use the pages concerned.

Another way which it is hoped will become practical very soon, is to dispense with Flash altogether.

These days, many of the features that were once the sole domain of Flash are now becoming available through the latest extensions to the HTML standard. Embedded video, clever animation and improved interactivity are now all possible without recourse to Flash so eventually it is hoped that web-designers will leave Flash in the dust and move on.

There's also hope that Adobe's promise to deliver a mechanism for allowing users to control and examine the cookies deposited on their machines by way of Flash will also be fulfilled.

In the meantime -- do you really know who's keeping tabs on your web-browsing?

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