Cookies
 

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If you go to any search engine and type "cookie", you'll get a zillion sites, some even with recipes. If you concentrate on the Browser sort of cookie, there are still a lot.

Technically, a cookie is a text file put on your computer (in Win95 it's in the c:\windows\cookies directory) by a website. (Netscape was actually who developed them, so you can't blame Bill for their beginnings.) You'd think from all the hysteria surrounding them that they'd be something more complicated, but they're not.

The reason most people are concerned about cookies is because they feel they are an invasion of privacy. From Cookie Central

… Basically cookies cannot harm your computer. The general controversy is not what cookies can do to your computer, but what information they can store, and what they can pass on to servers …

A website can tell an amazing amount about you whether you accept cookies or not. Don't believe me ? Go to anonymizer

Then come back here.

Not all websites use cookies.

If a website asks you to fill out a form, chances are it's to configure a cookie so that the next time you're at the site it remembers who you are and what your preferences are. That way they don't have to ask for your name and password every time you want download updates (or whatever).

By default, most browsers automatically accept cookies. You can go to your browsers Help File to find out how to either totally block cookies from being deposited or to set it up to ask before accepting cookies. If you block all cookies, you'll run the risk of having your request to enter a website denied, or, the site may not show up properly. If you have the computer ask before accepting cookies, you'll have control over which cookies you want to accept. It will drive you absolutely berserk, but you do have more control.

There are some cookies that help you and the site, and some that just help the website.

Say you go to a website, say Ford. Ford drops a cookie on your computer. All it can do is see where you go within the Ford website. It's a good for the web admins because they can tell traffic patterns - i.e. which pages people visit and pages they don't. They can also tell from the cookie how many times you've been to their site and how long it's been. Yeah, they could put a counter up, but a counter can't tell if three people looked at a page, or one person hit 'refresh' twice.

So now you go to another site, say, the Keebler website. Keebler drops a cookie of it's own. It has no idea that the Ford cookie's there, and not only can't read it, could care less. The Keebler cookie may track how long it's been since you were at the Keebler site, where in the site you were, and that's about it.

Now if you zip on over to Microsoft, they have whole areas where they don't let you in if you won't accept cookies. If you want to look something up in their Knowledge database, they need to add to the cookie you got the last time you were there - they're gonna track where you went in the site, what you searched for, they know what operating system you have etc. But really so far, there's nothing to get alarmed about when dealing with cookies.

There's also a file ( again, Win 95) in the cookie directory called index.dat. It seems to be an index of all the cookies you accept. I'm still trying to figure out who's looking at that. And why.

Where it gets sticky is when you get cookies from those banner ads. Say you look in your cookie file and see "justme@doubleclick.txt". They are there to track your surfing habits so that they can 'tailor' ads to your preferences - so you might see a banner ad for say, Honey (that was a Pooh reference, btw) and I might see one for ... I dunno ... Dell Computers.

From Cookie Central:

… connect to the Internet, and jump to www.doubleclick.net Read all about how they are going to make money giving us cookies we don't know about, collecting data on all World Wide Web users, and delivering targeted REAL TIME marketing based on our cookies and our profiles. Pay special attention to the information at:advertising/howads.htm You'll see that the folks at "doubleclick" make the point that this entire transaction (between their server and your machine) is transparent to the user. In plain English, that means you'll never know what hit you. So what's happening is, subscribers to the doubleclick service put a "cookie request" on their home page for the DoubleClick Cookie.

When you hit such a site, it requests the cookie and take a look to see who you are, and any other information in your cookie file. It then sends a request to "doubleclick" with your ID, requesting all available marketing information about you. (They're very coy about where this information comes from, but it seems clear that at least some of it comes from your record of hitting "doubleclick" enabled sites.) You then receive specially targetted marketing banners from the site.

Personally, it doesn't bother me if anyone knows where I surf. They'd probably be bored to tears. To tell the truth, I don't even notice the banners anymore. In cases where there might be delicate situations, I'd say have your set your browser prompt you when someone wants to leave a cookie. Most of the time, the page will come up just fine without the cookie, other times, it won't come up. I'd accept cookies from the sites I was on, say CNN or realhollywood, but not doubleclick or any that don't match the site name. You'll see them alot in 'free' forums - they have to pay rent somehow ....

As far as specific questions:

Q: Why I was once told I didn't have enough cookies to personalize a page and this being so where do I get more cookies?

A: The only thing I can think of is that your browser was set to refuse cookies, so the cookie that particular site wanted to put on your computer to personalize their page for you wasn't able to. If you accept the cookie it wants to give your computer, you shouldn't get that message. Check your browser's Help file to determine and change how cookies are handled by your browser.

Q: What about stealing cookies?

A: Some cookies can be 'stolen', namely those cookies written with Javascript. I just know that they can be stolen, but since (unless you fill in a form) there's no personal info on them … I really don't think you should worry about that.

Q: What if someone using my computer goes to sites that I don't want tracked?

A: When you aren't the one using the computer, set the browser to refuse all cookies. (Check your browser's Help File to find out how)

For more information …


 

 

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last updated: July 06, 2009
Shoshana 1999-2009