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Cookie Monsters: why words matter when creating trust in technology

At iVirtual, we’re interested in creating trust between people and the technologies they use. Trust is a feeling. But it’s also the ability to verify that a relationship is trustworthy. “Cookies” is an example of a technology that many people don’t trust. Here’s one reason why.

Lou Montulli created Cookies for Netscape in 1994 as an amazingly clever innovation. Montulli actually called them Magic Cookies. They were described as “something passed between routines or programs that enables the receiver to perform some operation; a capability ticket or opaque identifier.”

Opaque Identifier? Huh?

Technology too often comes with jargon that most people don’t understand. What’s even worse is a name like Magic Cookies that makes powerful technology sound fun or harmless without sharing what’s actually going on behind the jargon. It should come as no surprise that in 1996 people freaked out when news reports explained that a Cookie was actually a tracking file planted on your computer without your knowledge or consent.

Are all cookies bad? No. And, when it comes to cookies, a lot has changed since 1996 (some good things and many not so good). As always, it’s the way we use technology that matters.

Take the camera for example: it’s an amazing technology that most of us use every day. If you add the word “surveillance” then “camera technology” suddenly takes on a new meaning: Surveillance Camera. Those words together immediately change the way people think of the technology. A camera is a remarkable thing. Discovering that a surveillance camera is installed in your house without your knowledge is not.

Cookies were widely used in the 1990’s to remember your online preferences, especially in shopping carts for e-commerce. Today, there are a lot of Cookies installed on your devices that do a lot of jobs. There are Session Cookies, Persistent Cookies, Secure Cookies, Http-only Cookies, Same-site Cookies, Third Party Cookies, Supercookies, Zombie Cookies…

Most people don’t understand what cookies do and most would be a little suspicious of something called Zombie Cookies. Words matter. If we want to build technology that serves people then we should be clear about what the technology is and what it is for.

Not all cookies are for tracking. But Third-Party Cookies are used by companies, organizations, and governments as a tracking device installed on your phone, tablet and computer. And, like with surveillance cameras, you should be very clear and careful how you use them.

Today, websites use small print terms and conditions to ask consent to use invasive Third-Party Cookies installed on the computers, tablets and phones of unsuspecting users. That’s not OK. When describing powerful technologies that impact privacy, we need to use words that people can understand and we need to be transparent about how these technologies actually work.

At iVirtual, we create tools that enable consumers and website owners to move away from confusing identity technologies and to build trust in the way privacy and personal data are managed.

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