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What Affect Will Prism Have On The Use Of Cookies

Earlier this month, the Guardian published a story that led to privacy concerns erupting across the globe as a result of their  discovery of a thereto unheard-of programme going by the name of ‘Prism’. The British public was  awakened to the fact that the American National Security Agency (NSA) had the ability to read any communication sent over the Internet, through access to the data held by Skype, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple and Yahoo.

The ins and outs of chats, browsing and emails were in fact available to the NSA and could have been for as far back as 2007, when the programme was allegedly established.

The legality of this seemingly intrusive activity by NSA is being questioned as I write, and the companies involved are vehemently deny knowledge of the surveillance programme. The case certainly raises many issues surrounding the right to online privacy.

What I ask here is, whether the discovery of Prism will lead to renewed concerns over internet privacy generally and what impact this might have on Internet marketing generally.

After all, it is the cookies on the websites that we visit which track our every online move, click or ‘Like’. Whilst US Intelligence officers might be interested in the activities of a tiny percentage of people online, website publishers and advertisers avidly scan data logs in a bid to characterise their customers and understand their online habits.

Indeed, the real reason the American government can access data from users around the world is in many instances because the larger companies and corporations mentioned above mine the data in the first place.

Will Sites Still Use Cookies After Prism?

cookie monster


To most people the use of cookies makes sense and the loss of privacy that they involve is justified. A website records your movements in order to understand how you use the website. In theory this enables them to enhance your experience on the site. In return for this loss of your privacy you are able to enjoy a tailored experience and enable the website to analyse and understand your use of the website. Your usage statistics combined with data from all of their other visitors enables them to make enhancements to the website for the benefit of their users (and the cynical part in me would say for their bottom line!).

If public opinion over Prism heats up could it have a knock on effect and lead to renewed concerns over cookies?

Recently, on May 25 2012, the EU Privacy and Electronics Communications Directive came into effect in the UK. This law requires a company that uses cookies on its website to take reasonable measures to seek the website user’s permission before putting cookies into action on their computer.

Reasonable provision must be made to advise website visitors what the cookies are, what information is collected and how the information will be used. My own experience across the sites that we work with is that the public has embraced cookies and that the greater level of knowledge surrounding them has lead to less concerns regarding their use.

Elsewhere, the US government is currently reviewing the Do Not Track Act. This proposal would allow people to remove themselves from online behavioural advertising. Senator Jay Rockefeller re-submitted the Act in February 2013, but the bill originated in 2011. It appeals to the Federal Trade Commission to develop a mechanism which enables people to be anonymous on the Internet. If that comes into existence then online advertising could really be challenged.

Due to Prism, there could now be a re-focus on this particular Act, at least in the USA. Indeed, the American government needs to balance its country’s two conflicting needs of a nation founded on the principles of democracy and equality, namely the need to protect privacy and the need to enforce security.

Will Consumers  Accept Cookies Post Prism?


The question is, what will Prism do to people’s behaviour on the web and their acceptance of the practical value of cookies? After all, Prism would not have been possible were it not for the millions of companies who store customer behaviour details in a bid to target their marketing campaigns effectively.

Prism could cause consumers to become even less happy about sharing information online with the websites that they visit. When the public realise the connection between corporate collection of data and the use of the same data by government operations, they may then decide not to agree to being tracked by cookies when using the Internet.

If this does happen it will create huge problems for digital marketing teams like us. Much of what we do involves performance marketing where we rack visitor interactions against certain deliverables. When a consumer turns off cookies it really messes with the stats. Fortunately to date the majority of consumers readily accept cookies. We certainly hope that this continues.

On the other hand, the current Prism debate may in fact take attention away from advertiser behaviour. Furthermore, if public opinion moves in favour of Prism as a method to counter terrorism, decreasing customer surveillance would in fact seem a non issue.

In essence, the outrage against the NSA programme shows just how concerned people are about their privacy on the Internet. However, given the extent to which website’s have gone to educate people regarding cookies we anticipate that cookies will not again find themselves making headlines.

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