THE BLOG
12/08/2014 09:35 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Most Delicious? Oreos Versus Tracking Cookies

Most of us love Oreos, the 102 year-old indulgence that reigns #1 in the U.S., year after year. And we love our technology too, so much so that on a daily basis we ingest countless, flavorless but fat producing nonetheless, tracking cookies. So you would think that cookies and technology together would make the most awesome partners since chocolate and peanut butter, right?

If only...say it ain't so! Tracking cookies on our computers are leaving an awful, bitter taste in our mouths, a frown on our faces, and a pit in our sour tummies. These bytes are the equivalent of the burnt mess that dad baked once, the ones where he added salt instead of sugar. Now multiply that vision. You see, tracking cookies come from unscrupulous websites under the auspicious proposal that they are healthy and good for you, yet they have one soulless purpose, to latch onto you, your phone and computer, and watch you all the time. That's not the crazy ramblings of a midnight cookie-eating left-wing liberal or right-wing conservative. It's a documented fact.

With these unsavory cookies, you are not the consumer, but rather the product, being packaged and sold by service providers to everyone and anyone. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Yahoo have created a money-making model envied and replicated by online and mobile companies the world over. The mission is simple and it starts with tracking, gobbling, sorting, and categorizing everything you are doing online. Then a digital data profile is built and continuously added to of everything about you...and it outlives you. Ah, now the giant byte third step in this data vacuum; manipulate what you see online - from your newsfeeds to advertisements - while also selling your information to ad companies, data brokers, and the like, as well as to all-comers (healthcare.gov, bankers, employers, schools, private investigators, etc.).

That is a clogged artery from a cookie overdose! This ensuing digital profile (data brokers have over 1,500 points of interest about each of us), that electronic database of everything 'you', can easily be accessed and used in ways that impact your relationships, career, credit, and much more. You, your family, and your friends, have likely already had some of these telling experiences. It's not much fun and it is definitely not sweet. It messes with your reality, like a bad batch of cookie dough licked off the spoon.

This is a good time to reach for a delicious non-GMO glass of milk. Speaking of which, those same online companies with those lovely sounding but rather evil cookies use your profile to manipulate what you see online, giving you a warped perspective of the world. This is a genetically engineered reality - the technology kind. Don't believe me? Try doing the exact same search on Google with a friend of yours on your own separate computers. The choices and order you see are completely different. Remember the story a few months back about Facebook's experiment with its user's newsfeeds? What they didn't tell us is that they do that every second of every day, ongoing. Back in the day (whatever day that was), if two people looked up information in an encyclopedia, everyone got the exact same facts. Now the very facts of life are up for interpretation.

Your externally generated data inputs of the world are no longer related to mine, even if we share a bedroom. The spin, the nuance, the hierarchy of what is important, are all interpreted by algorithms that spy on everything we do - that listen to our microphones (FB Messenger), that spy in our homes (Google's NEST), that manipulate our political views (FB + Google), and so much more.

So why aren't we throwing out these stale, stinky cookies? Surely even a Fig Newton is better than these! Many of us know they're lurking behind the scenes of our online and mobile experiences. But we can't see them and they don't seem to impact what we do, so what's the big deal, right? You can't see germs either, and we all know what they can do. Cookies are a strange disease on the Internet, infecting your privacy, weakening your identity, and providing data about you to the yucky cookie company that is manipulating your sense and sensibilities, boxing you into a limited data stream of content and advertisements, confounding your mind's ability to expand. There is nothing friendly or benign about that.

Companies such as Google and Facebook will say their cookies are useful because they accumulate information to cater to your interests. Really? I want to choose the cookies I consume and I want to make the decision about what is relevant information to me, whether it is a friend's message, a purchase I desire, a political position, or an uncensored search.

Time for a delicious cookie moment: picture yourself at Starbucks, enjoying your latte and a scrumptious chocolate chunk cookie, tucked away in a corner messing around on your tablet, pinging friends or getting some work done. You're in your own world; enjoying your own space. Now imagine there's a creepy Gollum looking over your shoulder, breathing down your neck, watching your every move, feigning friendliness. Everywhere you go, every app you open, he follows you. He knows more about you than you do. Because while you just live your life, creepy Gollum collects data about everything you do. In this case, my precious reader, the stalker is profiling you. You can't see him. You can't touch him. The cops can't stop him. The courts won't persecute him. He is always there, your own personal stalker. Do you feel safe now?

In a nutshell, that's a tracking cookie. You don't even have to be a registered member of a site, such as Facebook, to be tracked or hit with ads. Consider this, Facebook currently tracks you on 1,205 of the top 2,510 most popular websites in America! If you want a sense of just how many cookies are tracking you right now at your favorite social media sites, check out this neat cookie-counting gizmo called the MeWe Challenge.

Ah, but recently the Supreme Court told the authorities to take their hands off your phone unless they've got a warrant. Whew. At least all those countless crumbs of personal data on your mobile phone about where you are, where you are going, what you are saying, etc., are safe, yes? Sorry, no. Now, similar to those mega-cookies you can get in the cafeteria for late-night study jams, there are "super-cookies." Companies such as Verizon and AT&T are using super-cookies to track millions of cellular customers. What makes them super? You can't escape them. These cookies laugh at your privacy settings.

Just in time, here comes the Cookie Monster to the rescue! He is under cover, using professional cookie-finding names like DoNotTrack and Disconnect to identify, quarantine, and dispose of these malevolent crusties. Liberation at last? Can we now enjoy our Mint Milanos with a tasty crunch and a carefree smile? Uh, not so fast. You see, there's a new technology catching the attention of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and others that's even stealthier and more flavorless as they stick it to you in the craw: User-Based Attribution of "Unique Device Identifier for Advertising (IDFA)." Hard to believe, yes? Ok, not really that hard to fathom in this cat and mouse exchange. Here's how it works. Your smartphone comes with a unique fingerprint. With the user-based attribution model, you become part of a detailed triumvirate of information gathering: you as a person, the device you use, and what you do on that device, as well as within all the apps on that device. Resistance is futile. There is no escape, or is there?

Currently, we demand to be incognito yet find ourselves forced to be all too public. It is as though we are in the middle of a crumb collecting battle that comes from our indulgence in sites that openly support and advocate such shady dealings. There is a tasty, healthy solution that is simple and built into the heart of our democracy and its capitalist economic engine: choice. Continue to do everything you do online: surf, email, text, stream content, use social media to your hearts' content. But do it with companies that eliminate the cookies and the IDFAs, respect and honor you as their customer, and build privacy by design into their wares.

Here's the menu of our new sweets online. Instead of letting the Google Chrome browser be your eyes and ears online, try the Firefox or Tor browser. Instead of the Google search engine, try DuckDuckGo or Ixquick. Instead of Facebook, try MeWe. In our online munching, we are complicit in allowing bad cookie companies to infringe upon our rights as citizens and people. By taking action, we take back those rights. I love real cookies and I love my real friends. Let's keep those words sacrosanct and throw out the creeps!