At 28, it was a relic of the old world, the cookie. In a world of planetary-scale surveillance by digital platforms and defence contractors, of spy-as-a-service products like Pegasus and supply chain hit jobs like the SolarWinds cyberattack, the cookie felt insignificant, harmless, even cute, and on its way out. Its inconspicuous existence is, of course, its biggest asset. Cookies are the building blocks of the digital exploitation industry, its original seed and the insidious troopers in its evergrowing army. And they are a sickness, a microbe that infected the Internet with a hunger that gradually slowed it down.
Cookies track you when you browse. They’re pesky little chunks of code that get stuck in your browser when you visit a website. In the beginning, they were just meant to help the digital shopkeepers remember your name when you entered their establishment and show you the kind of pickles you liked most. Which is nice. Then they started collecting more and more data and a hunger was born. “Before cookies, the Web was essentially private,” Lawrence Lessig told the Times. “After cookies, the Web becomes a space capable of extraordinary monitoring.” Now millions of companies, organizations and political parties want to know who you are and what do you do on the Internet. What contents do you search, read and watch; what things do you like, click and buy. Where do you come from, where do you go. Mindless or deliberate browsing, it’s all the same for cookies. Companies that made money selling that information invented other kind of trackers, like the ones in your smartphone. The hunger is never satisfied.
For most of the time, most people accumulated the cookies unknowingly. Then browsers started blocking them, and the insurrection was felt. Surfing had become insufferable without the cookies functionalities. The hunger had turned into an actual addiction, and we were too lazy or too busy or too overwhelmed to stand a chance. But you already know all this. What you didn’t know is that computers – our computers – are not only the proxies for the tracking shenanigans, they are also footing part of the energy bill. Carbolytics
, Joana Moll’s last research project, is here to help you calculate your share.
Here is how it happens. As the unsuspecting hostess of all those trackers, your browser becomes a point in their network, a free riding antenna sending signals to the tracking grid. This grid is not environmentally minded, so the cost is not merely cognitive. We are wasting more than time. Moll’s deep dive into the tracking-based web advertising network shows this global infrastructure is opaque, exploitative and ridden with inefficiencies. Its greed for data matches its hunger for watts.
This is not the bill we normally focus on, precisely because it’s brilliantly diffused, as it is distributed among the targets through the atomized cookie net. With the assistance of Barcelona’s Supercomputing Center, Moll has analysed the carbon cost of this ecosystem within the top million websites. The almost 200 trillion cookies planted by 650 organizations through the top most popular million websites on the Internet produce a monthly average of 11,558.16 metric tonnes of CO2. An average user catches 39,400 of those cookies on a monthly basis. Working in the background of his browser, leeching on the resources of his system, those cookies produce 2.3 grams of CO2 monthly.
It seems like a menial amount. A regular fridge makes 9.66 kg of CO2 per month. Keeping a laptop on for eight hours a day makes a monthly average of 5.5 kg of CO2. Again, its insignificance is the key to a successful strategy, that of diluting environmental responsibility through a net of unwilling subjects to power their own surveillance, making them accomplices of the planetary-scale scam. And it works because surveillance is an environmental issue, and just as easily dismissed when divided into a sum of individual consumer’s choices. It was actually British Petroleum (BP) who responded to the climate activists with a “carbon footprint calculator” to relocate the blame. If you have chosen to drive a car, cook a steak, discard a plastic bag or fly to work, then you are contributing to global warming as much as the second largest non-state-owned oil company in the world. Turning victims into perpetrators is Capitalism’s favourite mindfuck.
Apart from the moral deflection, distributed infrastructure also works best for evading attribution. It is really hard to identify some of the organizations behind these schemes, and it is hard to discern what some of their cookies do. A few of the most outrageous numbers suggest bad behaviour beyond mere data exploitation, but the range of possibility arches from undiscovered glitches to deliberate cryptomining scams, and it is hard to tell them apart. Under conditions of opacity, the hunger sprouts into new patterns, disconnected from the source. A dark pond of unattended developments, cookies replicating like tumour cells. This environmental hazard might require specialized intervention, but it can be monitored through collective eyes.
In the last few years, a new scene of forensic researchers and reverse engineering wizards have improved our understanding of the data extraction industry. We can’t be all wizards, but we can be eyes. Being part of the cookie network gives us a point of geophysical observation, that we should use to widen our understanding of the Internet and those exploiting its flaws. Carbolytics
, by Joana Moll, must be that kind of tool.
Marta Peirano is a journalist specialized in technology and power. She works for main Spanish media outlets, including El Pais, La Sexta TV, Muy Interesante and Radio Nacional de España. She is a well-known public speaker and long-time advocate of free software, digital privacy and the radical decentralization of the critical infrastructure.
Her most recent books are The Little Red Book of Online Activism, an essay on cryptography with a foreword by Edward Snowden and The Enemy Knows the System, a text discussing online digital feudalism and political manipulation. In 2020 she was the technology curator at Barcelona’s Biennale of Thought and a guest researcher at the Spanish Centre for National Defence Studies. She lives in Madrid and has a part-time dog.
Copyeditor Miha Šuštar
Text commissioned by Sónar+D Barcelona