Imagine that whenever you go to the supermarket, a computer keeps track of everything you do. It knows the aisles where you push your cart, the items you pick up and the items you return to the shelf. You have no idea that this covert collection of data is taking place until the next time you visit that market.
Then, instead of finding organized aisles, there is only one aisle with the items you want. The market claims to be offering its shoppers time-saving convenience while simultaneously using the information it collected about you to sell in-store advertising.
Sound a little Orwellian? Welcome to the Internet, where hundreds of big-name Web sites track traffic and collect preference data--often unbeknown to users who might object if they were aware of it.
If you do any amount of surfing on the Internet, you probably have cookie files on your PC’s hard disk. A cookie file saves information about you that allows a Web site to recognize you when you visit again.
Say, for example, you go to the Microsoft Network home page (https://www.msn.com) that allows you to personalize the site by identifying preferences, such as your favorite news categories. These preferences are stored in a cookie file on your PC. The site secretly peeks in the cookie file the next time you visit and customizes the site to match your previously stated preferences.
With a subscription-based Internet site, your user ID and password are probably stored in a cookie file, preventing you from having to type in both each time you visit the site.
At many sites, cookie files simply track user traffic and usage patterns. Web sites can use WebTrends, for example, a program that saves cookie files on visitors’ hard drives to generate site statistics. This tells the Web site’s operators where users came from, what they looked at, how long they viewed a particular page, what links users clicked on and more. Web sites need statistics to sell advertising.
Innovative marketing firms have changed the face of cookies: Instead of storing site-specific information, these cookie files save a unique number that identifies the user. Sites are then set up to look for this unique number, and a profile of the user can be generated, based on the browsing habits of the individual.
Because the site needs to be aware of your unique number stored in the cookie file, it cannot track all your browsing. But for those sites that do know the number, online advertising can be modified to show users ads geared to their individual interests. DoubleClick, an online advertising company, claims 10 million user profiles based on this type of cookie use.
Cookies cannot divulge your e-mail address to a site or scan your hard drive. However, computer hackers have punched holes in the security of older Web browsing programs. For this reason, you should be sure to use the most current version of your Internet browsing program. Drop by the browser publisher’s home page for the latest release information.
Although cookies offer convenience for users and marketing research for Web sites, the surreptitious gathering of information irks privacy advocates--and with good reason. It is possible for a Web site to read your entire cookie file collection without your knowledge. Furthermore, users must trust that the Web sites will not exploit its database of personal and usage information it collects. Unfortunately, there is no central authority that controls the potential abuse of user information on the Internet.
Users can see cookies stored on their hard drive. Netscape sends cookies to the cookie.txt file located in the Netscape folder. Microsoft Internet Explorer users will find their cookies in the Cookies folder in the Windows folder. You can open a cookie file using any text editor, although you probably won’t be able to decipher the series of number and character codes.
It’s important to note that you can only set cookie warnings; you can’t totally disable cookie files from landing on your PC. If you elect to not accept the cookie, you may not be able to use all the features of a Web site. And if you do accept cookies, you really don’t know what’s going on. Although disabling cookies prevents sites from sending them to you, it doesn’t prevent them from uploading cookies from your PC.
An alternative to warnings is to get PGPcookie.cutter, a browser plug-in from Pretty Good Privacy ( 572-0430; https://www.pgp.com). PGPcookie.cutter lets a user decide which cookies he or she wishes to allow or block from sites on the Web. The Windows NT version is available; Windows 95 and Mac versions are forthcoming.
Or you can handle cookies the way I do: I delete the Netscape cookie file or Internet Explorer cookie folder and start with a clean slate. The downside of doing this is that you will need to re-create preferences or passwords at certain sites.
Don’t worry about ruining your Internet software configuration when deleting the cookie files. You’ll get the cookie file or folder back again, without any action on your part. The browser re-creates it for you when you visit a site that sends cookies. By deleting the cookies on your PC, at the very least, a site won’t be able to get information without your knowledge.
Kim Komando is a Fox TV host, syndicated talk radio host and founder of the Komputer Klinic on America Online (keyword KOMANDO). She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com