Tag Archives: browser

Privacy implications of Local Storage in web browsers

Privacy professionals often have a hard time keeping track of technology and how it affects privacy. This post is meant to help explain the technology of local/web storage.

With the ability to track users across domains, cookies have earned a bad reputation in the privacy community. This became particularly acute with the passing of the EU Cookie law. In particular the law requires affirmative consent when local storage on a user’s computer is used in a way that is not “strictly necessary for the delivery of a service requested by the user.” In other words, if you’re using it to complete a shopping cart at an online store, you need not get consent. If you’re using it to track the user for advertising purposes then you need to get consent.

Originally part of the HTML5 standard, web storage was split into it’s own specification. For more history on the topic, see this article. Web storage is meant to be accessed locally (by javascript) and can store up to 5MB per domain, compared to cookies which only store a maximum of 4kbs of data. Cookies are natively accessible by the server; the purpose of the cookie is to be accessed by server side scripts. Web storage is not immediately accessible by the server but it can be through javascript.

CONS

The con here is that, as a privacy professional, you should be aware of what your developers are doing with web/local storage. Simply asking your developer if they are using cookies may illicit a negative response when they are using an alternative technology that isn’t cookies. Later revelations and returning to your developers may result in a response “Well you asked about cookies, not local storage!” There are also proposals for a local browser accessible database but as of the time of this writing this is not an internet standard (see Mozilla Firefox’s IndexDB for an example).

Web Storage is not necessarily privacy invasive but two things need to be addressed. First, whether that local data is transmitted back to the server or used in such a way that implies results that are transmitted back to the server. Secondly, whether the data stored in local storage is accessible to third parties and represents a risk of exposure to the user. As of this writing, I’m not sure if 3rd party javascript running through a 1st party domain has the ability to access local storage of if it is restricted by a content security policy. The other risk is that a local user can access local storage through the a javascript console. Ideally data on the client should be encrypted.

PROS

Local storage also has the potential to increase privacy. Decentralization is a key technique for architecting for privacy and having access to 5MB of local storage allows enough room to keep most, if not all, client data on the client. Instead of developing rich customer profiles for personalization on the server, keeping this data on the client reduces the risks to the user because the server becomes less of a target. Of course, care must be taken to deal with multi tenancy (more than one person on an end client), which may be especially difficult for systems accessed often by library patrons and the problems of people accessing the data of other local users.