Milking Cookies

In the denouement of the fizzling meme of NSA as Big Brother, the New York Times features an AP report on the intelligence agencies inadvertent use of persistent cookies in its new web system. The software came with persistent cookies as the default for any new installation, and the NSA forgot to disable it when it upgraded its website. Predictably, the AP and the Times (and CNN and the Guardian in the UK) treat this as yet another example of NSA abuse:

The National Security Agency’s Internet site has been placing files on visitors’ computers that can track their Web surfing activity despite strict federal rules banning most files of that type.
The files, known as cookies, disappeared after a privacy activist complained and The Associated Press made inquiries this week. Agency officials acknowledged yesterday that they had made a mistake.
Nonetheless, the issue raised questions about privacy at the agency, which is on the defensive over reports of an eavesdropping program.

If it did raise questions about privacy at the NSA, then it also answered them. The AP report explains later that the new installation created the problem and that it corrected it as soon as the AP and the one complainant made them aware of the issue. In the great spectrum of Internet privacy dangers, “persistent cookies” sits on the weakest end. Spyware from free downloads cause more security problems than cookies, and even the ones used by the NSA can be blocked by any browser on the market. The AP uses the mistake to make cookies sound vaguely sinister when they’re almost as ubiquitous on the Internet as pop-up ads, if not more so. The Guardian gets even more hysterical, in all senses of the word, when it says that the “[e]xposure adds to pressure over White House powers”.
The silliest part of the story is that no one can understand why the cookies would present any danger to visitors to the NSA website. Both versions of the story call the risk to surfers “uncertain”, but a more accurate description would be “irrelevant”. Even if the NSA used it to track where casual visitors to its site surfed afterwards, it would discover nothing that any casual surfer wouldn’t already be able to access on their own with Google or a quick check on Free Republic. Now imagine who stops to check on the NSA website and try very hard to come up with any good reason to spend precious resources on scouring the web preferences of bloggers and privacy groups instead of focusing on real signal intelligence, which already comes in such volume that the agency has trouble keeping up with their primary task.
The only story on the NSA cookies is that the Exempt Media intends on milking every last ounce of public outrage it can manufacture out of sugary nothings.
ADDENDUM: Just for grins, here’s a partial list of cookies that the Exempt Media has placed on my computer:
Cookie ………………………………………………….. Expires
ads.guardian.co.uk ………………………………… 12/30/2037
ads.telegraph.co.uk ……………………………….. 12/30/2037
adserver.tribuneinteractive.com ………………. 12/30/2037
adsremote.scripps.com ………………………….. 12/30/2037
ap.org ………………………………………………….. 09/23/2021
bbc.co.uk ……………………………………………… 11/21/2009
cnn.com ……………………………………………….. 05/27/2010
foxnews.com ……………………………………….. 12/31/2010
gannettnetwork.com ……………………………… 12/31/2010
latimes.com ………………………………………….. 12/15/2010
msnbc.msn.com ……………………………………. 11/04/2021
nytimes.com ………………………………… 10/06/2021
usatoday.com ………………………………………. 12/31/2025
washingtontimes.com ……………………………. 01/17/2038
It’s a damned good thing that the Exempt Media — especially the AP, the New York Times, and the Guardian — have so much concern about my privacy.
UPDATE: The DNC web site generated persistent cookies that expired in 2033, according to Wizbang — until this Tuesday. Why do you suppose they suddenly changed their programming? Do you suppose that the AP may have tipped them off?

6 thoughts on “Milking Cookies”

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