- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Q: I’ve been hearing a lot lately about “cookies” on my computer. What are they, and are they really dangerous?

A: Cookies have been getting a bad reputation lately because some are linked to spyware and adware, programs that often sneak onto your computers. Many anti-spyware programs identify cookies as threats because Web sites can use them to target ads based on your surfing habits.

But cookies are much more than that.

Fundamentally, cookies are small data files your Web browser uses to help sites remember who you are. They were invented at Netscape Communications Corp. a decade ago and incorporated into the then-reigning Netscape Navigator browsers to make Web surfing more efficient. Other browsers soon adopted cookies, too.

Without cookies, each interaction with a Web site would be treated as a new visit.

The site would have no way of knowing that the page you just called up and the one you called up five minutes ago were summoned by the same person.

That’s often not a problem for basic Web pages.

But for commercial Web sites, it can be.

Cookies, for instance, help remember usernames and passwords. Sites that require registration would otherwise have to ask for them every time you visit or want to see a new page on the site. Cookies can also remember other preferences, such as your city for weather or favorite sports team for scores.

Electronic-commerce sites use cookies to enable shopping carts. Without them, you would have to complete a purchase before buying a second item.

Many cookies go away when you exit the browser, but others, known as persistent cookies, keep track of you across many days, even weeks or years, of surfing.

That is where most concerns with cookies lie.

Though marketers say cookies help prevent you from seeing the same ad over and over and let them tailor pitches to your interests, they also can let sites and their advertisers build profiles on you.

Cookies themselves contain little data — usually a unique ID number of some sort. Their power is in the data attached to that ID and kept by Web sites.

Online advertising agency DoubleClick Inc. landed in hot water in 1999 when it bought a direct marketing company, allowing it to match cookie profiles consumers thought were anonymous with real-world information to build dossiers about buying habits and identities. Under pressure, DoubleClick eventually scrapped such plans.

Cookies have since received little attention as a privacy risk — until recently. Because cookies have lately become associated with spyware and adware, anti-spyware programs tend to treat them as threats.

Users have many choices for managing and blocking cookies.

Anti-spyware programs, though not Microsoft Corp.’s, look for cookies tied to advertising, and users can have those programs erase some or all cookies identified.

Standalone PC cleanup tools also can regularly flush browsers of cookies, though some may get rid of even those that remember passwords.

Most browsers also come with cookie controls built in and generally distinguish between first-party cookies placed by the site you visit and third-party ones placed by others, such as an advertising company the site uses.

Using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, go to “Internet Options” under the “Tools” menu. Hit the “Privacy” tab, and move the slider to your comfort level. To erase all cookies, hit the “General” tab and press “Delete Cookies.”

The cookie controls for Mozilla Firefox are under the “Tools” menu as well. Select “Options,” then “Privacy.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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