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Super cookies – overstepping boundaries?

Posted by Michael Bloch in web marketing (Saturday August 1, 2009 )

Cookies are an important part of the Internet for users, merchants and particularly affiliates. However, perhaps cookies are starting to store a little too much information and privacy advocates do have some real cause for concern.

Cookies are text files sent to a person’s computer from a web site and stored on the user’s machine, identifying the user on subsequent visits. They contain information about user preferences and may also include referral id information. Cookies can help provide a more personalized surfing experience and are crucial for all sorts of tracking, including tracking affiliate referrals.

Without cookies, the Internet would be an incredibly frustrating place and affiliates would see even more sales leaks than they currently do.

The controversy about cookies has raged on for years and mostly it’s been blown out of proportion by privacy advocates in my opinion – until now. Things *are* starting to get a little sinister.

Data research and marketing companies are now starting to connect a user’s offline life with their online activities. This means a new generation of “super” cookies is now being dumped on users’ machines by some sources, containing information relating to income, credit score, home ownership and car ownership… and much more.

An article on the New York Times paints a very disturbing picture; not just about super cookies, but how much data some companies have in their databases regarding consumers. For example, the article makes mention of Acxiom, who estimates it has 1,500 pieces of data on every American. That’s quite astounding. Imagine those 1,500 pieces of information about you being dumped into a cookie on your machine and following you around the web.

While I’m sure these super cookies would be a marketer’s gold mine as it would allow the presentation of very targeted offers and provide many more answers about visitor demographics; it’s all a little unsettling. There’s many questions I have about people who visit sites I’m involved with, but I think we need to draw the line somewhere when it comes to user privacy. If we don’t, we risk a revolt, followed by enforced regulation.

The world of marketing is constantly testing boundaries, which can be healthy, but when it comes to super cookies; maybe the industry is going a little too far – we should only have access to this level of information when the user explicitly grants permission; and without tricking them into divulging it.


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