Internet Cookies- Spyware or Neutral Technology?
by Wayne Porter
What are Cookies?
There is nothing mystical about the cookie. They are merely text files that are placed on a user's computer by Web sites that the user visits. Cookies may contain and provide identifying information about the user to the Web sites that place them on the user computer, along with whatever information the sites want to retain about the user's visit.
Another example of cookie use is with the targeting abilities of online ads. While many users don?t like online advertising it is a necessary component for web sites to generate revenue. Without revenue the site cannot pay for bandwidth, servers, programmers, artists, content writers and other resources it needs to remain open and serve users. Cookies, in this case, give the site some basic feedback on what the user may or may not want in terms of advertising. We feel that targeted advertising can be a useful resource for users and untargeted and obtrusive advertising degrades the value for the end user.
How can Cookies be Abused?
Another point of potential and common abuse is in the work environment. IT Managers have been known to audit cookies. This means they may look through cookie folders and URL surfing history to determine where a user has been surfing or what they are doing with their time at the workstation. Cookies can provide a lot of information on a user?s surfing habits if you know where to look. For example it is easy to probe through the browser and other program?s data to get a general idea of what a user is doing online or where they are shopping. Likewise it will show if a user?s machine has been connected to a URL that serves adult content. This is a case of a benign technology being abused for covert purposes.
In the work environment users should understand that nothing is private and everything is potentially open for inspection by the employer. Be aware of this ability to inspect your browsing at all times and consult your employee handbook if you are unsure of your work place privacy policies. Also be aware that employers may deploy true spyware technology to log what you do, where you surf, and every e-mail you send. This is a far more critical threat than auditing cookies.
What Should Users do?
If you discover cookies on your machine (and you will if you surf) SpywareGuide.com advises you take some advice from the Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy- Don?t Panic. For the most part cookies are a benign technology that usually requires human intervention for abuse.
For advanced users you can take control of cookie use on your own. In Mozilla and Netscape, go to Edit > Preferences. Then proceed to Privacy & Security > Cookies and select "Enable cookies for the originating web site only". This will block third party cookies. You can also set when cookies expire and setup other privacy settings that deal with cookies, the download manager, and surfing history.
With the latest versions (6.0+) of Internet Explorer, go to Tools > Internet Options. Click the Privacy Tab and press the "Advanced" button. Check "Override automatic cookie handling" and "Block" under Third-party cookies. You can also set First-party to prompt but this can be tiresome- especially if you like to shop online.
You may also want to look at 3rd party software applications that can easily clean cookies and other traces of system activity.
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