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By now, you’ve heard of Internet “cookies” and realize they’re not just a tasty midnight snack. In the world of Cyberspace, a cookie is a small string of text that a Web server dumps on your hard drive. Designed to enhance the browsing experience, this mechanism contains bits of information that reveal which sites you’ve visited and what you did there. For example, if you visit a site that requires a sign-on, cookies leave data to ensure you’ll have to key it in only once. They also form the basis of the shopping-cart concept in electronic commerce, allowing you to leave the site and return later to find the items you originally selected in your cart.
So why all the controversy? As cookies pass information back and forth with each visit, they eventually build detailed profiles that are used by third parties to deliver targeted advertisements and e-mail messages to Web site visitors.
According to Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., a site developed to enforce a surfer’s “right to be let alone,” the information obtained through cookies could be subpoenaed or sold. Once your identity becomes known to a single company listed in your cookies file, other companies could have access to your information. Although Catlett admits that we haven’t seen specific damage performed by cookies, he believes the potential is obvious and dangerous. Besides, they can take up space on your hard drive.
For the most basic cookie protection, you can configure your Web browser to alert you when a Web site tries to send you a cookie. In Netscape 3.0, try the Options menu: go to Network Preferences, then Protocols. Select “Show an alert before accepting a cookie.” (Don’t forget to save your options settings.) In Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0, try View, then Options, then Advanced, and check “Warn before accepting cookies.” Later versions of these browsers also have this feature. These solutions are limited, however, and in sites that can try to set up as many as 20 or more cookies, the “alert” function can be quite annoying. For more specialized protection, a handful of software companies have developed several new cookie managers to help you control the cookie invasion. We’ve sifted through this assortment of “cookie cutter” programs and have provided you with the pros and cons of each of them. Choose the package that would provide you with the level of protection you need.
Luckman’s Anonymous Cookie for Internet Privacy (free; www.luckman.com/anoncookie/anoncookie.html). Protect all of the cookies in your browser’s cookie directory or file–instantly. In this utility, one button enables or disables access to your cookies. It supports Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Be warned: this is an all or nothing deal that doesn’t allow you to choose between various Web servers.
Internet Junkbuster 2.0 (free; www.junkbusters.com). Users can selectively block offending commercial objects such as cookies and ad banners, while preserving all the other images on Web pages. Surfers may also choose to block some sites completely–X-rated sites, for example. The software is free, but the