Cookie Anyone? from the March 2000 Actrix Newsletter

by Rob Zorn

Are you aware that each time you visit a web site the site's operator, as well as others, can collect information about you? This isn't as sneaky and nasty as it may sound, as mostly information about you is gathered solely for the purpose of enhancing the experiences of visitors to the site. Usually....

The most common way web site operators keep tabs on their visitors is by giving them cookies. In Internet terms a cookie is simply a string of letters or numbers stored on your hard drive as a text file. Cookies assign a unique identifier to each computer that visits a web site enabling operators to distinguish each visiting machine individually. Cookies can also contain site user identification information such as passwords (to individual sites, not to your internet account or Windows profile) to eliminate the need to re-type it each time you return to the site.

Sites that rely heavily on advertising also make extensive use of cookies to find out which sites you have recently visited, which pages of the site you viewed, which advertisements you have been shown, and whether or not you clicked on any of them. Each time you return to one of the sites within their advertising network they use past cookies to find out when you were last there, which advertisements you've seen, and which attracted your attention, effectively creating a small profile of your online movements.

While that sort of advertisement targeting may not appeal to you, cookies do have their useful functions. Sites can use them to enhance your visit by ensuring you see something different next time you come, making subsequent visits less repetitive. They are also useful in that they allow your browser to remember specific information that may be useful to the web server later.

For example, when you browse through an online bookstore or shopping mall adding things to your "shopping cart," a list of the items you've grabbed is temporarily stored on your hard drive in cookie form so that you can pay for all the items once you've arrived at the "checkout."

A cookie is NOT a secret way for a web server to find out everything about you or to steal all your passwords. Cookies contain only text and cannot damage your computer, cause programs to run or sneak a Trojan horse or virus in. Your browser is designed to work with cookies and could only ever let text in. The only way that any private information could be found within a cookie would be  from you personally giving that information in the first place. Also, each cookie is marked with what web server it is for and your browser will not give cookie information back except to the relevant server(s).

It is possible to configure your web browser to prompt you before accepting cookies, or to bar them from being saved on your hard drive altogether.

In Microsoft Explorer the setting is to be found under Control Panel/Internet Options. Select the Security tab and click on the Custom Level button. Scroll down to the Cookies section where the disable or prompt options are to be found.

In Netscape Navigator, open Edit/Preferences. The cookies switches are found within the Advanced category.

The downside of doing this is that some sites will attempt to push cookies onto you a dozen times or so before they load, and some won't function for you at all unless you accept their cookie first. Believe me, this can really cramp your browsing style!

We not scared of cookies!

We not scared of cookies!
So, do the cookies always win? Well, yes and no. You're not entirely powerless. Because cookies are always only text files, they can be regularly deleted without harm. Internet Explorer saves cookies individually in a folder called Cookies, usually within the Windows folder. Opening your Cookies folder and deleting its entire contents is quite safe. Navigator stores all cookies in a single file. In the windows platform this file is called cookies.txt. On a MacIntosh this file is called MagicCookie. Deleting these files will not disable or otherwise harm a computer or web browser. I do not recommend deleting the Windows Cookies folder, however, only its contents.

Keep in mind, too, that cookies are often stored in your computer's memory until you close your browser, so deleting all cookies while your browser is open or while you are still surfing may have only partial results.

Aside from cookies, you might also be interested to know that your browser does share technical information about you when you visit Internet web sites, and there is little you can do to stop it.

When you click to request a web page, for example, your browser sends information to the requested site including your i.p. address (numbers that identify your computer on the internet), the kind of hardware and software you are using, your internet service provider, the site you visited previously, and in some cases even your email address.

Click here to see just how much information about you your browser is willing to share as you surf.

It should be apparent by now that the browsing you do in the privacy of your own home is not quite so private as many of you might have thought. In the end though, I don't recommend disabling your cookie function. It seems to be a fact of internet life that we can do little about. I regularly delete my cookies just to spite them, but when all is said and done, I doubt that my doing that has any significant effect upon anything...