August 17, 1998
Updated 10/30/98, 3/10/99
Cookies are text files that identify your computer, your browser, and pages visited. They are not created by users, but automatically by software. Cookies, as well as the more personal data we reveal when signing up for free email, contests, or special services, represent valuable information that can be bought and sold in what is, at present, an almost entirely unregulated environment. Companies do fear a bad reputation, which on the Net can spread like wildfire, severely affecting business within a matter of hours. The question is whether fear of getting caught is enough to prevent abuse.
Cookies are stored in your browser's directory. The information they contain are used by a site's server to customize its response to your return visit. For example, if the server knows that your computer has shown a past preference for certain pages and products, it can post ads reflecting those interests.
If you want to see what information is stored in your cookie file, use a text editor or word processor to read cookies.txt or MagicCookie, which are located in your browser's directory.
In Netscape Navigator 4.0X, go to Edit menu>Preferences>Advanced. Set cookie handling as desired.
In Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 go to View menu>Options>Advanced. Select "Warn before accepting cookies." To turn off Cookies already installed, go to Windows/Cookies directory. Delete contents of file(s). Set attributes as Read Only, Hidden, System.
Note that while you can turn off cookies, this may prevent or complicate your access to some sites.
Cookies were in the news last week (8/98) when the Federal Trade Commission accused Geocities of selling customer information to third parties despite the company's assurance to customers that it would do no such thing. Geocities has since changed its disclosure statement, while contending it did nothing wrong in the first place.
Right now there are few laws protecting privacy rights on the Internet. Yet ever more detailed information is being sought by companies from those who visit their sites. Cookies are actually pretty innocuous. They only give information about a computer's performance and identification, not a person's. Really personal information is garnered when people register for special services. In these cases, a server may "harvest" not only names, but the email addresses, street addresses, telephone numbers, ages, and incomes that goes with them. All of which are stored in databases that can be bought and sold.
October 30, 1998___Navigator 4.06-4.5 has an new feature, called "Smart Browsing", which is enabled by a What's Related button. Smart Browsing relies on a persistent cookie that not only reports the next few sites you visit back to a Netscape database, but is the same cookie that holds personal information you must enter before downloading Netscape products. In other words, Netscape could build a database linking your browsing sessions to your name.
Dave Winer at scripting.com reported today that Netscape's lead developer for What's Related, Ramanathan Guha, told him that the next release, 4.5.1, will display a warning dialogue before a What's Related search, and will not send the cookie.
Smart Browsing can be turned off in Edit>Preferences->Navigator->Smart Browsing.
For more discussion of the privacy implications of this technology, see Interhack's "What's Related".
March 3, 1999__Microprocessors with embedded serial numbers can be used to identify devices such as computers, network cards, cell phones, digital video players, and sometimes their users as well. Unique serial numbers are also generated by software packages whose parts pass information to each other (such as Microsoft Office's spread sheets and text documents). These numbers allow devices and programs to interact over networks. But how can privacy be protected? Microsoft, for example, is able to use the online Windows 98 registration process to build a database linking owners' personal information to their machines' ethernet addresses.
See informative background articles on this subject by John Markov in this week's New York Times: Compatibility and Privacy (3/3/99) and "Microsoft to alter Software in Response to Privacy Concerns" (3/7/99).
3/8/99 As of today, Microsoft is stopping receipt of Hardware ID from online product registration. See complete response in Microsoft's letter to customers.
These sites provide information and cookie management software:
See also PC Magazine's 3/98 article on Cookie Managers.
Created 8/17/98. Last Updated
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