Cookies – for a long, long time – have gotten an unfair, bad rap. It’s so bad that users will actually go out of their way to delete these cookies off of their machines, even though new cookies will be set as soon as they visit virtually any web site on the world wide web. The reasons for deleting cookies are as varied as the ingredients in a New Orleans style jambalaya. Some say cookies take up too much space (they don’t, cookies never exceed four kilobytes, which is the equivalent to a grain of sand on a beach); that they infect your computer with viruses (they don’t, or the internet would be completely inaccessible, which is isn’t); or, that they are used to spy on your computer (most cookies can only be read by the site that sets them, and the domain [the URL of the site] is “hashed”, which means that it is encrypted with a numerical algorithm).
So, when folks delete their cookies and feel that their internet browsing experience is that much safer, are they really deleting ALL of their cookies? The answer is surprising: no, they are not. Flash cookies, which are set by flash applications, are not stored or viewable in the same places are the regular text cookies that folks have been deleting for all of these years. Because Flash is so prominent (installed on almost 99% of all computers), virtually everyone who has been online has at least one flash cookie installed on their computer, without even knowing it.
These flash cookies can store up to 100K of information, which is a bit more than 25 times what the regular browser cookie is allowed to hold.
Deleting your flash cookies can be done on your computer, but it’s a lot easier if you visit the Adobe Flash Player settings page, where you can find the Website Privacy Settings panel. Click on the little folder icon (which should be the last one of the right-hand side on the top row of icons) to view what sites have set flash cookies on your computer.
If you didn’t know that flash cookies existed, let alone know that you probably have some flash cookies set on your machine, then that is the greatest argument that I can make for not deleting your cookies. You wouldn’t have even known about flash cookies until you read this blog post, so how big of a part do cookies play in the grand scheme of things? Does what you don’t know hurt you?
So, do you delete ALL of your cookies? 🙂
Start the countdown right now! In a little under 29 years from now in the year 2038, Web Analytics engineers at Google, Yahoo, Omniture, Coremetrics, and WebTrends will have some very tough choices to make – and it’s never too early to start thinking about them!
This isn’t a trivial issue like Y2K or something like the digital TV transition day on June 12th of this year – no, no, no! This has the potential to seriously compromise cookie integrity, and potentially “break” visitor tracking, industry-wide!
What is happening in 2038?
On Tuesday, January 19th at exactly 3:14:07 UTC, all computer software programs (including Web Analytics Cookies) that store system time as a signed 32-bit integer (like a Unix timestamp) will start to “wrap around”, storing time as a negative number, causing every system using signed 32-bit integers to interpret time as 1901, and not 2038.
Whoa, Whoa! Back Up – I have no clue what you’re talking about.
Okay, let me try to break this down for you. Almost every 20th century computer uses a signed 32-bit integer which keeps track of system time on your computer, on servers, ATM machines, iPods and iPhones, and so on. This “signed 32-bit integer” business is also known by another name – Unix Time (or also “POSIX” time). This time is represented by the number of seconds since January 1, 1970.
If you take a look at your browser’s cookies, you’ll see endless strings of numbers and dots, like this:
The cookie selected here in this image is the __utma cookie from Google Analytics, and the 10-digit number that I have highlighted represents the first time I visited the Google.com website. This number – 1239628694 – is a Unix Timestamp, and when you do the math (or use a conversion tool somewhere online), this number translates to Mon, 13 Apr 2009 13:18:14 GMT (of course, I most likely cleared my cookies – yes World, I clear cookies from my computer, too!)
So what’s the problem again?
Okay – the problem with this comes due to the way modern computer programs calculate this 10-digit number. That’s what you need to know (Warning: This next party is very geeky). They almost all use a very standard 4-byte integer to count up the seconds, which is 31 bits long, able to contain a maximum value of 2 to the power of 31. The 32nd bit is the sign, which of course is positive (+). When you do the math, the maximum number that computer software programs can reach and stay positive is 2147483646. When you add one more second to it – 2147483647 – the positive sign will become a negative sign, and instead of Tuesday, 3:14:07 on January 19, 2038, computers everywhere will display the time as Friday, 8:45:52 on December 13, 1901.
Can’t this be fixed? Can’t we just ignore the date and move on?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Most every operating system stores system time as a 32-bit integer, and system time is a very big component of a functioning software program (they absolutely need to be able to come up with a positive time stamp). So, it’s not an easy fix – most likely, entire software programs will need to be re-written and re-programmed to avoid Y2038K.
This includes personal computer operating systems, ATM machine software, other electronic devices with computer-like components, and, yes, Web Analytics cookies.
Okay – Y2038K? Give me a break – this is TWENTY-NINE and a HALF years away! I think you’re jumping the gun here.
You’ll be surprised how fast 29 and a half years goes by in computer programming. Think of this – we’re in the year 2009, and we’re using a timestamp that starts counting seconds from 1970 (39 Years Ago), which was first published in 1988 (21 Years Ago). Most of us are still using Office 2003 (6 Years Ago).
29 Years is right around the corner – so I hope that we can come up with some kind of conversion tool, some type of new timestamp calculation, some new 64-bit integer system that can seamlessly transition all software programs and Web Analytics Cookie Timestamps for the next generation!
*Note: Some of this blog post is obviously “tongue and cheek”. I am not really sounding the general alarm about what will happen in 2038 – but hey, it’s never too early to start planning for the future! :)”