A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2021 May 15, 10:52 -0700
Short answer: there are good cookies and bad cookies, and I only use good cookies.
As David has said, the recent increase in publicity about web-browsing cookies is a result of a significant increase in EU (European Union) regulation of cookies and other data which is known as the GDPR. Here's a nice article on everything you need to know about the GDPR. These rules went into effect three years ago this month, and there was a panic among website managers who often misunderstood the point. The problem is that there are good cookies and bad cookies.
Cookies have been around since the earliest web browsers. They exist because visiting a website is fundamentally anonymous, and that means that a website can't remember anything about your last visit unless it sends you a small file with your preferences and other details as a "gift". The website is saying, "Oh, you're leaving? Here's a cookie. See you later". The "cookie" is stored by the web browser on your local device (desktop computer, laptop, phone, tablet, watch, whatever!) as it sees fit, and when you visit that website again later, the information stored there is immediately reloaded. For real internet newbies, your "web browser" is the app or software or tool that you use to visit websites (that's Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox or Apple Safari or Microsoft Edge and many others will low adoption rates in the modern world, and also included Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer a generation ago). Cookies in this category that store information about your preferences and data on a website you're visiting are known as "first-party cookies". They are good cookies, and no one is trying to regulate them despite some panic and confusion a few years ago (and despite the over-reach of GDPR which needs some work, especially on the awful cookie consent policy).
As I noted, cookies were created because web-browsing is fundamentally anonymous. But it's not literally true. Whenever you visit a website, some information about who you are and where you are is passed to every website you visit, and the most basic details are recorded by every web server, most importantly your "IP" address (this is a numerical address that defines where you are on the internet, sometimes to the nearest state or region with pools of addresses like on mobile phone networks and sometimes right to your local street address with many standard wired internet systems, like "cable internet". There ar also so-called VPN services that can mask your IP for free with mediocre speeds or for a small fee with normal browsing speeds (I recommend Mozilla VPN). Wondering about your IP address? Try this Free IP Lookup Geolocation service. The IP address is a hook, a starting point, for tracking every user. The technology of cookies was soon (10-15 years ago) enabled for more effective tracking, and that is what led to "third-party cookies". These are bad cookies.
Third-party cookies are used by advertisers to follow you around the internet and effectively build profiles that can be attached to actual people: names and addresses. This is the advertiser's Holy Grail, and --just by coincidence-- it is a totalitarian government's Holy Grail, too. It's enormously valuable to advertisers, and suddenly the internet becomes a dangerous place. Your identity is there for the taking, and it is a commodity to be bought, sold, and stolen. And no one is held responsible. Behind-the-scenes the technological system that makes this tracking so effective is known as digital fingerprinting. When you visit a website, a tracking app will ask for all sorts of innocuous details from your web browser to find out what level of support it has for various internet functions. The specific collection of details is often good enough to tag you permanently. Here's a nice article on browser fingerprinting. Even this technology can be useful and "good". For example it can be used to block vandals and other bad apples in internet communities, but instead it has been used carelessly and aggressively deployed to make money. This is where the EU's GDPR regulations made enormous sense. The European Union became the world leader in internet privacy and data security, and the United States became a sideline spectator (but see my final paragraph below).
Good cookies? Bad cookies? Whaa...?? Want more? Here's a nice article that I recommend on first-party and third-party cookies.
So what about the NavList website? I have been building and maintaining this website since 2006. Originally it was just an archive of messages designed to replace a third-party archive that was publishing our group messages without permission (just "some guy" who was using some free web space he had available to make a little advertising money off of our content). Within a few years the NavList website (here at fer3.com --FER-- my initials) took over all primary operations for our message traffic and digital archives. It just "did that" by magic as the internet advanced? Well, no. For better and worse, I built it to do everything that it does with very few external tools. The advantage here, in terms of data privacy and safety, is that the NavList website uses very few components that I have not built myself. I control exactly what cookies and other data are created. The NavList website uses a few cookies, like 99% of websites, and they are all first-party cookies. NavList employs good cookies only.
By the way, for Alan, another reason internet privacy and data-tracking is in the news is because Apple Inc. is enacting strict data policies on its own, as a matter of corporate policy, to enhance its reputation as the world's best guardian of the privacy of its users. And it is doing so. And other companies that have been profiting from data-tracking are fuming mad and making all sorts of threats towards Apple and users of Apple products. Are you worried about data privacy and data protection? Then buy and use Apple products. Apple is in the process of locking down its computers, devices, and their operating systems in ways that radically reduce the use of third-party cookies and similar technologies and that far exceed the regulatory requirements even of the EU's GDPR. And in fairness to the laissez faire attitude of the USA (both government and body politic) toward the growth of the digital economy, this is exactly how it should happen. Companies compete. Quality emerges.
But wait, is it good capitalism in play, or is this an evil monopoly at work?! Well, that's opera, and it will play out this year. Stay tuned.
PS: While I'm here, there's another technology for storing local user information that also dates back to the earliest days of the internet, and this is relevant to links posted in NavList message. Suppose you find an interesting item on ebay and you want to post a link. Very often the URL (link) is quite long. I try to edit these manually whenever I see them, but you can do this yourself. In any link you post, look for a question mark. Anything after and including the question mark is data, usually optional, and you can delete it when you post or share a link. This "URL data" also often contains tracking data used by some websites, but more often it's just some user-specific information.
An example from my web apps:
Here's a link that I just created to the USNOclone web app:
and here's the link with everything from the question mark forward deleted:
See the difference? The first loads the data for my inputs. The second starts fresh with your selections. Note that this doesn't always work on every website. Sometimes the first item after the question mark is required so it's always a good idea to test a link before you post it.
Continuing the lesson a bit: the pattern for data in long URLs like this is a set of items separated by ampersands in "key value" pairs. So look at the original URL above. After the question mark (which begins the URL data block), you can scan through it from ampersand to ampersand and more or less read what each item is providing. There is, for example, a key value pair that says "Lat=40". Of course you can manually edit that, and if the designer of the website (me in this case) is not being intentionally mischievous, then changing Lat=40 to Lat=30 would naturally change the latitude for the navigation data.
An example from ebay:
Here's a link to an auction for the cover of Life magazine from my birthday (when I was four years old):
That's a crazy long URL (the visible version is truncated). But look: there's a question mark very early in the URL. Aha. Probably everything after that is optional, and there's a good chance it's some sort of tracking info (hint: "trkparms" just might be short for "tracking paramaters").
Here's that same link with everything from the question mark forward deleted:
And that's all you need! Try it out. This link takes you to the item in question, no fuss. And you should try the link. Seriously, you should visit that link if you have read this far. :)