E - Privacy: How to Make the Cookies Crumble
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, Aug 3, 2000

Corporate gremlins peeping through our electronic keyholes. Big Brother in our motherboards. In the cyberspace invasion of privacy, the most bemoaned intruders have been Internet "cookies," the small files secretly planted on our computers by large web sites which act as moles and relay information about where we’ve been on the Web back to the site's server or online advertisers. But despite alarms sounded in the media, what the talking heads never seem to mention is that cookies can be easily removed from your computer and also prevented from being placed there at all. This won’t be news to nerds, but if you’re in the general population of light duty computer users, read on.

Cookies were invented by Netscape a few years back and are usually text files saved in your browser's directory and stored in the computer’s memory while the browser is running. What they don’t do is monitor your email, newsgroup postings, or chat room conversations. Cookies are not viruses, and don’t transmit them either, but like bacteria, some are benign and others aren’t. The shopping carts that some online retailers have on their sites use cookies to track your order, but these are usually snuffed at the end of a browsing session and don’t threaten privacy.

What you don’t want crashing your gate, though, are “persistent” cookies-files that can stay on your computer for upwards of thirty years informing an online ad server where you’ve been on the Web. And as it happens, the default settings of both Netscape and Internet Explorer will allow cookies into your computer. Hit an adult site lately? You might be mortified to know who’s watching. And according to the Federal Trade Commission, you can’t do anything about what is done with this information.

Typical of the news coverage on cookies was a 20/20 episode reported by Barbara Walters earlier this year. After a primer on cookies, Walters showed the Web site of a major Internet portal like Yahoo!. Cookies from the site placed on two different computers had tracked the surfing patterns of the users and reported them to the online advertiser DoubleClick, and voila!-banner ads at the tops of the two screens plugged different products, each targeted to the user’s taste. At the time, DoubleClick was being sued by the state of Michigan over privacy issues. But Walters, who I used to consider a smart cookie, said nothing about how viewers could protect themselves from the eavesdroppers.

Because cookies can easily be deleted and disabled, I went to the ABC Web site to try to email the editorial staff and tell them their broadcast had missed a critical point. But in a consummate irony, my browser, which was set to not accept cookies without my consent, flashed a message that the ABC wanted to place one on my computer for a decade or three and send the information to DoubleClick (the answer was no)

Seeing no email link on the ABC page, I tried to draft a letter, but wound up crumpling it in disgust. Did Walters even know her network was guilty of the same thing? If she did, her report was the pinnacle of cynicism. Otherwise, she was clueless.

A quick check revealed that the Web sites of CBS, NBC and CNN also place persistent cookies, as well as those of local TV stations WNYT and WTEN, and the Albany Times Union. It would seen the media only wants to tell you half the story - a better informed public might be bad for business.

Resistance to cookies is mounting. The European Commission is considering regulating them, and the state of Michigan has just accused four major web sites of concealing the presence of Web "bugs," or tiny 1-by-1 pixel graphic files that prompt user’s browsers to trade cookie data with third parties.

Worse yet, Uncle Sam just got caught with his hand in the cookie jar-visitors to the Federal government’s anti-drug site Freevibe.com were winding up with cookies, which then sent their surfing data to DoubleClick. If users who had been to Freevibe later typed a keyword phrase like “grow pot” into a major search engine such as Alta Vista, they got an anti-drug message in DoubleClick’s banner ads at the top of the page. When this was discovered and reported to Congress, the White House announced that the government was backing off and Freevibe would stop planting cookies.

To the dismay of online privacy advocates, FTC just voted to approve a self-regulatory plan proposed by the Network Advertising Initiative, a group of major Internet advertising companies, which explicitly allows servers to collect people's browsing information and match it with their names and addresses.. Surfers must opt out of being profiled and/or identified by checking a box, rather than opting in at all. DoubleClick was jubilant over the ruling, but critics charged that foxes will be guarding the henhouse. Morover, DoubleClick just merged with the mail-order company Abacus, raising the specter of more junk mail at your door coordinated with banner ads on your monitor screen.

Here’s what you can do. First, toss your cookies by using the Find function to locate any that might be on your hard drive. On a PC, go to Start/Find/Files or Folders. Make sure the Name and Location tab is selected, and in the Named field, type cookie*.* (*.* is the “wildcard” file extension which finds any type of file named “cookie.” Some of the buggers can show up as .gif files rather than the usual .txt, so this is important.). Click on Find Now, and when a window appears showing cookies, select them and hit the Delete key. On the Mac, the Find File feature is in the Apple Menu Items folder.

How to keep cookies off your computer depends on which browser you are using. In Netscape 4x, go to the Edit column on the menu bar. Select Preferences, and in the Category window of the dialogue box, select Advanced. In the Cookies section, select the radio button that says Disable Cookies.

If you use Internet Explorer, go to Tools on menu bar, select Internet Options (on a PC, you can also get there by going to Start/Settings/Control Panel and double clicking on the Internet Options icon). In the Internet Properties dialogue box, select the Security tab, and in the Security Level section, place the cursor on the control knob and move it upwards all the way to High. Cookies will then be disabled.

The AOL browser makes disabling cookies difficult (I suspect this is by design), so you may want to consider using another browser for surfing. Cookie busting software is also available, but these remedies are free.

 If you hit a site that requires you to accept a cookie and you need to allow it, temporarily change your browser settings back to enable cookies. After you’ve left the site, change them back and use the Find command to weed out any cookies that may have snuck in. Also avoid giving out personal information online. These precautions only take a minute, and they’ll go a long way to shield you from greedy eyes as you wander the Web.

To learn more about this, you can visit www.celticguitarmusic.com/cookielinks.htm, where I have some links to sites dealing with cookies and other Internet privacy issues. 

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                            ©2001 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

Email: banjoandguitar100@yahoo.com

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