Would You Like a Cookie, Little Boy?
What follows is a revised and updated version of an article first published
in 1997. The problem it describes has only worsened with the rapid march of
information technology and the Internet.
When I was a boy my mama always reminded me to never take a cookie from a stranger. I always thought that was important advice and I handed it on to my children. I now hand it on to you. The cookies I’m talking about are cookies that come over the internet to your computer, sometimes from places unknown.
Cookies are small files that the sender wishes to store on your computer hard drive, sometimes with permission but more often that not without permission. The purpose of cookies is to allow the sender to maintain basic information on particular users. Cookies can also be used to track the kind of information that you seek and use when you are moving around in a particular site. A cookie tells its purveyor the indentification number of the computer you are using as well as the software and hardware you have on it.
In some cases the cookie may even be able to give your e-mail address and other information you did not intend to circulate to others. To the extent that you have given information such as your home address, your telephone number or your mother’s maiden name to somebody over the internet there is always the possibility that the cookies that are stored on your computer may contain that information and thus convey it unintended persons. Basically what the cookie does is to allow those who have placed cookies on your machine to engage in secret surveillance of your computer habits and to identify you as a further target for their machinations. Now you may say that those who venture outside their computer know they are taking some risk. But, you don’t even have to be out on the Web to get a cookie. If a cookie “distributor” has your IP number, it can call you in the night and put a cookie on your machine without your knowledge or consent. These “cookies” are to my mind a very dangerous development for those who cherish their privacy.
Now if all of this is as bothersome to you as it is to me, there are several things that you can do to deal with the cookie problem. If you are using Internet Explorer go to Windows update (windowsupdate.microsoft.com) and download the latest update to your browser. Then go to Tools/Internet Options and click on the Privacy tab where you can select the degree of protection from cookies that suits your need. If you select the Block All Cookies tab you can work through your standard Internet programs and you will see the effect. For example, if you read the Wall Street Journal on the Internet, blocking all cookies will keep you from getting into that site. You probably will find that a Medium High selection will give you the best combination of flexibility and safety.
The big problem is that the attractive information retrieval capability of cookies has made them very popular. Some years ago I had a bit of a go-around with the Wall Street Journal Interactive edition because they use so many cookies it becomes very difficult to read the site with cookie protection in place. The Wall Street Journal took the position that they have an absolute right to place cookies on your machine to retrieve information that is of benefit to them and to their cohort DoubleClick, an infamous advertising broker. When I wrote to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal about the problem I received first a form letter extolling the virtues of cookies and dismissing my concerns as the foolish ravings of the town idiot. I responded promptly, and perhaps a little more strongly than I should have. I got back a somewhat arrogant and very condescending message from the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition Webmaster explaining to me the error of my ways and detailing the many benefits that the Wall Street Journal was imposing upon my already paid-for usage of the website. The Webmaster was totally unconcerned by the fact that I was being forced to supply information to an advertising broker who was using the Wall Street Journal’s website for it’s purposes. I pointed out to him that I paid the Wall Street Journal to receive information not to force me to give them information. “I don’t want your cookies”, I said. “My mama told me just say no and that is what I’m saying.” But the Wall Street Journal does not allow you to just say no. They have decided that cookies are good for me and the rest of their users and, by golly, we take them or we get out. That’s the deal. Period. End of discussion. You are out.
I am paying a price for having an attitude, however. I cannot use the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition unless I am willing to accept the cookies. Fortunately, the Wall Street Journal is published in text form on other places to which I have online access. I have had the paper version delivered to my door for many years. I have plenty of fodder for my outrage machine without having to take a cookie from the arrogant Webmeister or his consort DoubleClick. The Wall Street Journal is one of my primary sources of information about a variety of things, however, and I cannot help but note the inconsistency between their ardently libertarian editorial posture and the totalitarian arrogance of their Webmeister and his minions.
“Just Say No” Has Consequences
Having waxed quixotic at the Wall Street Journal, I nonetheless have a duty
to tell you that if you follow my lead you will bear an even larger burden.
I was told by the Webmeister that the Wall Street Journal would slow to a crawl
will tell you the same thing. “Cookies are good for you” they will
say, “and besides if you don’t take them we cannot accomplish our
purposes.” And that, my dear friend, is exactly the point!
Software is available that will intercept and remove the cookies that are sent to your machine. See for example, a great little free program called AdAware you can download from www.lavasoftusa.com. If you use that software, however, it may mean that there will be some websites that you will not have access to and others will, as I was told, slow to a crawl like the Wall Street Journal. But, that is your choice, not mine. I do suggest, however, that if everybody started to just say no to cookies that we might be able to convince those who believe that they own the World Wide Web that cookies are a bad deal because we stay away from sites that use them. We do have the choice to say NO and if we did we would make a small contribution to making the world safe for computing and get writ large in the Book of Life. But that is probably just a pipe dream, isn’t it?
If you really want to know the details, you can go to (www.cexx.org/adware.htm) where the dirty details are laid out. As Otto Von Bismark once said, "There are two things you don’t want to see being made—sausage and legislation," to which you can now add cookies, spyware, malware, etc. Don’t blame me if you go out and buy a box of legal pads and a quill pen after you read about it!
Happy New Year!!!