Magazine article Curriculum Administrator

The Continuing Cookies Controversy

Magazine article Curriculum Administrator

The Continuing Cookies Controversy

Article excerpt

Online privacy is an illusion, but there are ways to make sure your tracks aren't being watched.

I remember how jarring it was when I visited a Web site I hadn't seen for a long time, and I was welcomed by name. While it is easy to think we travel the Internet anonymously, this site not only knew who I was, it also knew about my online habits, and displayed customized advertising targeted to my interests. Welcome to the not-so-brave new world where information about you and your behavior on the Web is tracked without your knowledge or approval, and where online privacy is an illusion.

COOKIES ON THE WEB The site that I visited performed those memory feats because of a controversial technology named after "magic cookies" with mystical powers in role-playing games. A cookie is a special data file placed on your own computer hard-drive by a Web site server, containing detailed information about the choices that you made while you were there. When you return, the server reads your cookie and knows a lot about you instantaneously. For example, if your selections indicate that you are a colonial history buff, the site might display ads for books and videotapes about that period.

Sites can usually read only their own cookies, so you may have hundreds of such files on your machine. And while you won't be able to understand any of the information they contain, you can find cookies on your machine by doing a file search on the word "cookie." However, to get an "idea of the information that browsers give out as you travel the Web--including the name and address of your service provider, the name of your computer and even its screen resolution--try the demonstration at Privacy.net (privacy.net).

SUGAR AND POISON While many people resent having their Internet travels watched, cookies actually help make the Web user-friendly. The technology may, for example, fill in order forms with information from previous orders, store passwords so you don't have to re-enter each visit, and alert you to new developments in your professional fields. Cookies also help site managers collect valuable data on which online features are successful and which ones are not; information that can lead to site improvements. …

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