Symantec boss urges sites to come clean over cookies

The boss of Symantec has called on websites that use cookies to warn the user in advance.

Symantec boss urges sites to come clean over cookies

During a visit to the EU in Brussels, John Thompson, chief executive of the security software company, said that cookies “are just as much an invasion of privacy as someone peering in my bedroom window”.

Cookies are small files on a computer that store information that web servers can retrieve every time they serve a page. Dennis Interactive, which publishes this website, sets a cookie that stores your username, so that every time you visit the site you are automatically logged in. Symantec itself uses cookies.

But it is not these relatively harmless examples that concern Thompson, but cookies that create a record of someone’s internet activity.

“I don’t have an issue with people having cookies on their machine as long as I’ve been told one just got planted there,” Thompson said.

In fact any decent web browser will include an option to be alerted when a site attempts to set a cookie. But Thompson wants the onus moved from the web user to the website. “I think there is an opt-in option here that should be available to everyone.”

Cookies were a much debated technology when their use first became widespread, prompting US Federal Trade Commission hearings in 1996 and 1997. There were – and remain – particular concerns about third-party cookies, those set not by the site you are visiting but by another server, usually one that provides advertisements to the site you are viewing. For that reason many browser have the option to block just third-party cookies while accepting others.

Google fears

Those concerns have arisen again following Google’s $3.1 billion offer for web advertising business DoubleClick. Consumer groups are concerned about the amount of data on web users’ habits that Google could accrue as a result of the takeover.

Thompson said he too would like to know what Google intends to do with this extra information and urged the EU to consider whether it should intervene.

Earlier this year Google attempted to assuage the EU by cutting the lifetime of unused cookies to 18 months. EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini welcomed the change.

Last week Google called on the UN to lead efforts to create a global privacy standard.

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