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Cookie Monsters and Online Goblins

 

How the Cookie Crumbles

You surf to your favorite online store which greets you, "Welcome back!"  It remembers both your name and your password and recommends a newly released novel from one of your favorite authors. You put the book in your shopping cart along with several you picked out last week. When you check out, all you have to do is click "OK;" the store knows not only  your address, but your credit card number and what type of shipping you prefer for your purchase. All these conveniences that make your online experience personalized and seamless are because of little strings of code called "cookies."

 

What Are Cookies For?.

Cookies began as a Web designer¹s tool for learning more about site visitors and helping a site remember your computer when you return. The name "cookie" was adopted from computer science lingo and the term was introduced to the general population courtesy of Web browsers. By using cookies, Web programmers can find out which pages are visited most frequently and for how long, which visits to the site are repeat ones, and which site the visitor came from last. Shopping carts, server-chosen news stories, and custom tailored stock reports are all possible because of cookies. As the methods of tracking surfer behavior become increasingly sophisticated, protecting your privacy online is becoming more difficult.

 

What Information Can Be Stored in Cookies?

Your email address and password

Your address and phone number

Your employer¹s name

Your Internet-protocol (IP) address

What operating system your computer is running

What browser you are using

What other pages you have viewed during that browser session

Any other information you have provided to a Web site in response to a request

 

How Does That Information Get There?

Registration. People commonly enter their full names, addresses and other information into a browser or other software when installing it or "registering" it. That information can be accessible to snoops who have a cookie to read all your cookies.

 

Free gifts. Web sites frequently offer "sign-on" bonuses like free T-shirts, CDs, and sweepstakes. When you fill out that form so they can mail your prize, your address and other personal info is stored in a cookie. At one time or another you might have filled out  identifying data, such as your income, age, or gender.

 

Members only. Many sites now have "memberships" that ask you for an impressive battery of personal facts before you can view material, listen to music, or buy products. Then they remember terms you used to search their site, they know which items you bought, and                   afterwards use this information to offer you something you¹re more likely to buy.

 

Change the Way Your Browser Handles Cookies

Using either Netscape or Internet Explorer, you have control over how your browser reacts to cookies and access to the files on your hard drive that store your cookies. You can delete these files if you like. Just  remember that if you don¹t shut off your cookies, those files will be

recreated or filled back up with new cookies as soon as you get back online. You can adjust the way your computer handles cookies by changing your browser settings.

 

Netscape stores cookies in a single text file. It¹s often located in C:\Program Files\Netscape\cookies.txt. If you open this document, you can view your cookies, choose which sites you want to keep cookies to, or clear the whole thing out. To change the way Netscape handles future cookies, go to the Edit menu in the browser, under Preferences/Advanced. You have several options about how you¹d like to handle cookies, from accepting all to accepting none.

 

Internet Explorer stores each Web site¹s cookies in a separate folder in C:\Documents and Settings\cookies. You can delete the individual folders, or all of them. On IE, you can change your cookie settings on the Tools menu of the browser, under Internet Options/Security/Custom. IE breaks cookies down into two categories -- those stored on your computer permanently and those used temporarily. Both kinds can be turned on, off, or you can choose to be prompted when your computer encounters a cookie.

 

Disable ActiveX & Java

ActiveX and Java endanger your privacy and security online by allowing access to local files, seizing cookies, or embedding malicious code within emails and other files. You can disable them both to varying degrees in the Edit menu under Preferences/Advanced (Netscape), and

the Tools menu under Options/Security/Custom (IE). However when you disable these items some bells and whistles on web pages your in won’t work

 

Use an Internet Security Program.

Using an Internet security product like Norton Internet Security helps you  handle cookies quickly and easily, while protecting your computer against viruses, malicious ActiveX controls, Java programs and other dangerous code. It also includes the new automatic Live Update

technology that checks for new virus definitions when you¹re online.

Norton Internet Security lets you keep personal information from being sent to Web sites without your permission, control Internet cookies, and block banner ads to accelerate download speeds.

 

Turn Off AutoComplete

Although it makes filling out forms online much quicker, "auto complete" also makes those forms less secure because passwords sometimes show up in plain text. You can elect to shut it off just for passwords, or to shut  if off completely. The settings for this tool are under the Edit or Tools menu in your browser

 

Read the Privacy Statement

Most sites have Privacy Statements in which they tell you what they will or will not do with your personal information. Many of them tell you they  will use your information for one purpose or another, but few people read the fine print. See if the site has an "opt-out" button that will prevent them from legally using your personal information.

 

Use Your Head

You can be a lot safer simply by being aware of how easy it is for people to know what you are doing online. Ask yourself when you quickly jump to fill in a form to become a "member" of a site, how is this information going to be used? Who else may see this? Would it be okay if everyone knew that I was involved with this site? In order to maintain even a little bit of privacy online, you¹ve got to pretend that you have none. If you follow these suggestions, while also being aware of your vulnerability online, you can surf safely. .