Without knowing it, casual Web surfers are daily victims of intentional computer invasion that's completely legal and doesn't require user notification.
Programs downloaded off the Web - or "cookies" in the high tech world - are the best-kept secret in advertising and may soon be the best kept secret in high-tech crime. So look out.
It's something worth thinking about the next time you send your credit card number to an online retailer or sign over personal information for a loan application. Everyone who surfs the Web on a regular basis has cookies sitting on their hard drives soaking up information about their activity and preferences.
The next time you surf the Web, a site might search the drive and retrieve a cookie that was left during a previous session. That information is used to determine what type of advertisements and banners the user might see when the page appears.
So what is a cookie?
Basically, it's a short (4 or 5 kilobyte) text program automatically downloaded onto the user's hard drive from a Web site. Initially, cookies were used by informational sites, such as newspapers and Internet providers, to store passwords and preferred settings so the user would not have to input the same information every time he or she visits. And then advertisers caught on.
They realized they could benefit from tracking where you go, what you search and how you use the Web. Now buying a book online doesn't just mean you get a book in the mail. It means you get ads for books from the same author, or other authors, or the same genre, et cetera. The possibilities are endless.
But cookies don't just relate to active buying choices consumers might make over the Web. They are tools that can monitor everything you do. A car buff who visits sites dedicated to classic Corvettes might be targeted for an advertisement for Al's Corvette Restorations. Or an Apple iMac user might suddenly start seeing ads that constantly feature iMac-compatible products. These adds have hypertext links that bring potential buyers to eager sellers.
Advertising agencies are picking up on this method for audience targeting, and even the more obscure sites are starting to figure out that this is the future of Web profitability. What could be more desirable for Al's Corvette Restorations than advertising that goes directly to Corvette drivers?
Some believe this form of information gathering is tantamount to strangers going through your garbage. The data collected can be anything from a dry cleaning receipt to a discarded credit card statement. In a way, both possibilities are disturbing - strangers getting access to an array of your personal choices.
Imagine to what lengths companies and thieves could go to monitor computer use. Perhaps a health insurance provider could watch out for people who research breast cancer or a savings and loan could look for outstanding debt. Chilling.
Luckily, some of the major software manufacturers have heard the call to insure Web privacy. Modern versions of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer offer features like cookie notification, selective cookie blocking and total cookie blocking. Some sites will not allow the user to log on without accepting cookies. Hotmail.com users might be familiar with this situation.
Research the possibilities by scrolling to preferences in the edit bar. For Navigator software select file selector in the preferences menu and check cookies. In Explorer, select "receiving files" in preferences and select "cookies." Both programs give you options for whether to accept or decline. Users of specialized services like America Online or Prodigy should contact the service for more information.
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