Some websites plant files – called cookies – on your computer to collect and store information about you and your behavior on the Net. Here’s what you can do about it.
Imagine that when you walk into a mall, someone straps a device to your arm that tracks your shopping habits and other vital information. Each store you enter uses the device to learn about your purchasing behavior – for example, what items you examined and rejected – and maybe even to obtain personal information about how old you are and where you live. Would you accept this sort of shopping experience? If you use the Internet, it’s a moot question; you already do.
Most online shops already use a tracking technology known as a “cookie.” This is computer slang for data that is stored on your hard disk so that a website will recognize you next time you arrive. You supply the information in each cookie – usually by completing a registration form at the commerce site. The site then sends this information back to your computer for storage and later retrieval.
What’s in Your Cookies?
Cookies are not active software programs designed to accomplish defined tasks. Instead, each is a passive data structure (a text file similar to the text supplied in email) that can be read only by the site that created and planted it in your hard drive. Because they are not active programs, they cannot cause or carry viruses. If you want to see what information is stored in your cookie file, use a text editor or a word processor to open a file called cookies.txt or MagicCookie in your browser’s folder or directory. Or visithttp://www.cookiecentral.com/stopcm.htm, a Web page that allows you to view the contents of your cookie files.
What’s Wrong With Cookies?
The tracking information that DoubleClick and others collect is merged with information voluntarily supplied by consumers to form profiles that are used to target advertising. At one point, prior to recent consumer uproar which resulted in DoubleClick scaling back its privacy invading priorities, DoubleClick was reportedly gathering more detailed information, including sales purchases, video rentals and even each search term used by a consumer on some popular search engines.
Currently, cookie-using firms such as DoubleClick simply take in the data and require consumers to notify them if they don’t want it used. For example, to prevent DoubleClick from gathering information, you must go to their site and opt of both “email cookies” and “ad cookies.” The problem is that most consumers, who don’t fully understand the extent to which their privacy is at risk, don’t know how to opt out. That’s why many privacy groups favor legislation such as that proposed by Senator Torricelli, which requires sites to get consumer permission (or opt in) before collecting or using the data gathered by cookies.
How to Cut Your Cookies
If you want more information, the U.S. Department of Energy Computer Incident Advisory recently issued a report on the potential dangers of cookies.