ISSUE 377: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE--Alan
Do you take cookies from strangers?
If you browse the Web, you probably do Jan 14 1997
Did your household leave cookies on a plate for
Santa, this past Christmas Eve?
If you've been surfing the Internet, without your
realizing it, your computer has probably been receiving gifts of
cookies, too. And while Santa's Oreos may have added calories to your
waistline, the Internet's cookies have probably been accumulating on
your computer's hard drive.
What are these mysterious Internet treats?
I don't know where the name came from--it doesn't
stand for anything. Cookies on the Internet are little files, often
encrypted, quietly placed on your hard drive by some Web pages, to
provide a record of where you've been and what you've seen. The next
time you visit the same page, the computer checks your collection of
cookies and can respond to you as a repeat customer. They're sometimes
referred to as 'persistent client-side information,' since they're
stored on your machine (the client-side), rather than on the Web
server, and because they hang around, staying on your machine even
after you leave the Internet (but not forever: like a box on the
grocery shelf, these cookies too carry an expiration date).
Proponents suggest that this empowers the Internet
surfer with this simple mechanism: users can potentially customize how
they view individual pages and store settings on their own computers.
It wouldn't be practical to store such settings for potentially
thousands of users on the server. Other cookies could store password
information, making it unnecessary to log on each time a site is
revisited. Or they can benefit advertisers, who, by using cookies to
keep track of the ads that have already been viewed, could ensure that
viewers see a fresh ad each time they visit. Virtual shopping carts
through a virtual store.
The more suspicious among us are not so sure, however.
Many Internet users are uneasy about files being written to their
computers without their knowledge or consent, especially unreadable,
encrypted files. As well, they have fears about a record being kept of
where they've been. (Note that this information is already available:
in addition to a Recently Visited Sites list, copies of those graphics
you've been viewing hang around in your browser's cache folder for days
or weeks. And if you're using the company's network to contact the
Internet, the network probably has a log file listing where you've
gone, and some people have lost their jobs as a result.)
And while there have been no documented instances of
this happening, it may be possible for cookies to actually harm a
user's computer--as a sort of virus disguised as an Oreo. Cookie
proponents suggest that any such risk was most likely associated with
made more secure.
The vast majority of Web sites are currently free of
cookies, but an increasing number of the most popular sites do give
By default, all this happens invisibly. As a result,
most users are unaware of having received a cookie. The latest versions
of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet
Explorer, however, allow users to set preferences so that they can be
informed when they are being 'offered a cookie.' Both programs then
give users the opportunity to refuse the privilege. (Check Options,
then Network, then Protocols for Netscape Navigator 3.0, and View, then
Options, then Advanced in Internet Explorer.)
Users of older versions of both browsers have no
choice--they will receive cookies without the option of being warned by
their browsers. Other Web browsing software, however, may simply be
unaware of cookies--and won't accept them.
For more power over their cookie collection, Windows
3.1 Netscape users may want to check out NSClean, available for
download from http://www.simtel.net/pub/simtelnet/win3/inet/
nscd332.zip, while Win95 users will want ZDNet's free Cookie
Master, available from http:// www.hotfiles.com/swbrowse/000/
C/K/swlib-000CKP.html. Mac users can search for Cookie Monster at http:\\www.macworld.
All programs are free and let users view cookies, log
cookie activity and delete unwanted cookies.
For the official line on Internet cookies, check in
with Netscape at http://home.netscape. com/newsref/std/cookie_
spec.html. More readable are Andy's Cookie Info page, http://
www.illuminatus.com/cookie.fcgi, or Malcom's Guide to Persistent
Cookies, at http://www. emf.net/ ~mal/cookiesinfo.html.
The general consensus is that cookies aren't
particularly dangerous at this time, and are of benefit to advertisers
and commercial Web sites. Users concerned about their on-line privacy,
however, may want to know when they're being offered cookies to have
some control over those unwanted calories.*