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Lori MacVittie

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Who Took the Cookie from the Cookie Jar … and Did They Have Proper Consent?

Cookies as a service enabled via infrastructure services provide an opportunity to improve your operational posture.  Cookie-standing

Fellow DevCentral blogger Robert Haynes posted a great look at a UK law regarding cookies. Back in May a new law went info effect regarding “how cookies and other “cookie-like” objects are stored on users’ devices.” If you haven’t heard about it, don’t panic – there’s a one-year grace period before enforcement begins and those £500 000 fines are being handed out. The clock is ticking, however.

quote-badge What do the new regulations say? Well essentially whereas cookies could be stored with what I, as a non-lawyer, would term implied consent, i.e. the cookies you set are listed along with their purpose and how to opt out in some interminable privacy policy on your site, you are now going to have to obtain a more active and informed consent to store cookies on a user’s device.

-- The UK Cookie Law – <place your own bad pun here> 

Robert goes on to explain that the solution to this problem requires (1) capturing cookies and (2) implementing some mechanism to allow users to grant consent. Mind you, this is not a trivial task. There are logic considerations – not all cookies are set at the same time – as well as logistical issues – how do you present a request for consent? Once consent is granted, where do you store that? In a cookie? That you must gain consent to store? Infinite loops are never good. And of course, what do you if consent is not granted, but the application depends on that cookie existing?

To top it all off, the process of gathering consent requires modification to application behavior, which means new code, testing and eventually deployment.

Infrastructure services may present an alternative approach that is less disruptive technologically, but does not necessarily address the business or logic ramifications resulting from such a change.

COOKIES as a SERVICE image

Cookies as a Service, a.k.a. cookie gateways, wherein cookie authorization and management is handled by an intermediate proxy, is likely best able to mitigate the expense and time associated with modifying applications to meet the new UK regulation. As Robert describes, he’s currently working on a network-side scripting solution to meet the UK requirements that leverages a full-proxy architecture’s ability to mediate for applications and communicate directly with clients before passing requests on to the application.

Not only is this a valid approach to managing privacy regulations, it’s also a good means of providing additional security against attacks that leverage cookies either directly or indirectly. Cross-site scripting, browser vulnerabilities and other attacks that bypass the same origin policy of modern web browsers – sometimes by design to circumvent restrictions on integration methods – as well as piggy-backing on existing cookies as a means to gain unauthorized access to applications are all potential dangerous of cookies. By leveraging encryption of cookies in conjunction with transport layer security, i.e. SSL, organizations can better protect both users and applications from unintended security consequences.

Implementing a cookie gateway should make complying with regulations like the new UK policy a less odious task. By centralizing cookie management on an intermediate device, they can be easily collected and displayed along with the appropriate opt-out / consent policies without consuming application resources or requiring every application to be modified to include the functionality to do so.

AN INFRASTRUCTURE SERVICE

This is one of the (many) ways in which an infrastructure service hosted in “the network” can provide value to both application developers and business stakeholders. Such a reusable infrastructure-hosted service can be leveraged to provide services to all applications and users simultaneously, dramatically reducing the time and effort required to support such a new initiative. Reusing an infrastructure service also reduces the possibility of human error during the application modification, which can drag out the deployment lifecycle and delay time to market. In the case of meeting the requirements of the new UK regulations, that delay could become costly. 

According to a poll of CIOs regarding their budgets for 2010, The Society for Information Management found that “Approximately 69% of IT spending in 2010 will be allocated to existing systems, while about 31% will be spent on building and buying new systems. This ratio remains largely the same compared to this year's numbers.” If we are to be more responsive to new business initiatives and flip that ratio such that we are spending less on maintaining existing systems and more on developing new systems and methods of management (i.e. cloud computing ) we need to leverage strategic points of control within the network to provide services that minimize resources, time and money on existing systems. Infrastructure services such as cookie gateways provide the opportunity to enhance security, comply with regulations and eliminate costs in application development that can be reallocated to new initiatives and projects.

We need to start treating the network and its unique capabilities as assets to be leveraged and services to be enabled instead of a fat, dumb pipe.


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Lori MacVittie is responsible for education and evangelism of application services available across F5’s entire product suite. Her role includes authorship of technical materials and participation in a number of community-based forums and industry standards organizations, among other efforts. MacVittie has extensive programming experience as an application architect, as well as network and systems development and administration expertise. Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was an award-winning Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing Magazine, where she conducted product research and evaluation focused on integration with application and network architectures, and authored articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. Her most recent area of focus included SOA-related products and architectures. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.