The way Google’s cookie crumbles

18 Jul 2007

Originally when a user visited a Google owned site, information on user habits or preferences were collected in cookies or tiny data files that were to be stored until 2038.

A cookie is a minute data file sent from the site server to the user’s browser, remembering information like site preferences and log-in details. Not just Google, but most website visits initiate the creation of a cookie file.

Now Google will hold cookie data for two years, at which time they will expire. In the next few months Google will begin this new policy, issuing users with cookies with the new auto-expire limitation built in.

Cookies can possibly compromise online privacy by building up a user profile of surfing habits.

However most cookie can be deleted or modified by changing user settings inside a web browser, and cookies will list their expiration date beside the domain name in the browser settings.

Google said that its ‘PREF cookies’ are used to collect basic user preferences like how many search results are displayed on the return page, or whether the SafeSearch filter is turned on or off.

The company said: “After listening to feedback from our users and from privacy advocates, we’ve concluded that it would be a good thing for privacy to significantly shorten the lifetime of our cookies as long as we could find a way to do so without artificially forcing users to re-enter their basic preferences at arbitrary points in time.”

As part of its recent shift in privacy policy Google also implemented server log anonymisation.

What this means is that instead of keeping information on search queries, where you’ve come from and what browser you’re using for ‘as long as it was useful’, a very nebulous definition, Google will now make this data anonymous so it can’t be matched up to individual users after 18 months.

By Marie Boran