Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Controlling Flash

Many of you kids may not remember The Big Cookie Scare about 10+ years ago. This was back before The Interwebs, when people sometimes called it the World Wide Web (so that's what "www" stands for!). The browser wars between Netscape and Microsoft were in full swing, and there was an epidemic of sites using these scary things called cookies. As far as a lot of people knew, there was no good that could come from cookies. I knew people who seriously thought that cookies were used as trojan horses, and that you could get viruses from them. I even worked for one of these people for two months, before finding myself a new job. Four months after I left, his company went out of business. Are we surprised?

Most people still don't know what browser cookies are, but the scare has lessened. Quite honestly, I think people just found new things to worry themselves about, especially when the browsers started introducing so-called "privacy controls". Now people can delete their cookies, block them from ever appearing on their computer in the first place, even edit them if they feel like it. The Intertubes are stuffed with rainbows and goodness. Or so we thought.

The cookie scare is back. People are suddenly finding out that this piece of goodness that Macromedia (and now Adobe, since the merger) has the ability to install cookies on your computer that your browser has no control over. Even worse, it's actually possible to have Flash install a cookie on your computer without you knowing that Flash is even running on a site. And if you delete a browser cookie, some sites keep a backup in the Flash cookie jar. Oh no! The tragedy! Webmasters have turned evil again!

I was already laughing. First of all, there's not much to worry about. Cookies are largely used as browser-side configuration to help maintain a consistent user experience, and as a mechanism to display ads to you that you actually care about, based on the types of sites you look at. This is little to worry about unless you're offended by content providers trying to use advertising to help pay for their employees and bandwidth, or you look at naughty sites while your boss/spouse/parents/etc are away. Shame on you.

But there are other reasons why I'm not worried. Thanks to a buddy of mine, I installed Flashblock a while back, which is a Firefox plug-in that keeps Flash files from loading unless you explicitly allow them to. I didn't initially install this because of some deep-seeded vendetta against Flash. It turns out that when Firefox 3 came out, certain Flash content would cause mplayer and Rhythmbox to stop working until I closed my browser. Since some sneaky sites think it's okay to automatically play videos when you open them, and certain friends have deluded themselves into thinking that I'm okay with this, I had to restart Firefox a lot.

Now that I'm running Flashblock, I don't get tricked into watching lame YouTube videos, and nobody is setting Flash cookies behind my back. But what if I was worried about cookies that were set before I installed Flashblock? Adobe's got you covered. They have on their site a Settings Manager for Flash cookies. It allows you to set rules and limits, and delete cookies that already exist on your computer.

So stop worrying about Flash cookies. Actually, stop worrying about cookies in general, you baby. If you're really paranoid, there are much, much worse things in the world to be worried about. Big brother's got plenty of other ways to keep tabs on you, and he probably thinks that cookies are an inefficient method anyway.

Hey, you've got something on your face. No, the other side. Up... up... yeah--yeah, you've got it.

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