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Web cookies

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


Web cookies and why they're not good for you
 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1996, The Syracuse Newspapers

A cookie monster may be lurking in your Web browser.

It's not munching on pecan sandies. It's giving out private information on your Web browsing habits. You probably don't even know this is happening.

The two top-of-the-line browsers, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, support this unwelcome intrusion as part of a new standard—or rather, a new would-be standard, since the entire idea of a real standard for Web operation is in a confused state. These two browsers share information on your habits with computers at Web sites worldwide.

What kind of information do they give out? Pages you've called up, your e-mail address, your age (if you've given it out in some way so that your browser can store it), your sex (if you've given it out), what kind of operating system your computer is running, and a lot more.

Fans of the cookie system say this information is wonderfully useful. Go to a Web site equipped with a cookie jar and it can find out right away that you've already seen the introductory page, for example, and it will show you instead a more detailed page.

Hog swill.

The lowest-common denominator is at work here, and that means if a cookie contains information about your PCs operating system and the number of sexy Web photos you've looked at recently, no one will even think about your operating system. The juiciest information is what counts.

You couldn't have a better example of invasion of privacy. It's as if the envelopes of all the letters you mail have your VISA card number, your late-night viewing habits, your drinking preferences and the name and primary complaints of your ex-spouse written on the flap.

Fortunately, cookies are easy to tame. Sometimes you can turn off your browser's use of cookies in the Options or Setup menu. If you can't,. you can delete any cookies already stored.

To do that, look for a folder called Cookies or one with a similar name. Leave the folder alone, but delete everything in it. Check once a week for any new entries and delete them when you find them.

And send e-mail to the folks who made your browser telling them to cut it out.

MANY MONITORS are badly adjusted in one way or another. No matter what kind of computer you have, you can get help setting the controls from PC Magazine's Web site. The editors have created a series of tests you can perform yourself, right from your chair. I tried it, and although I had just finished adjusting my 21-inch monitor using a professional program, the Web site actually helped me fine-tune my settings. The site is at http://www.pcmag.com/features/hardware/1517/opener.htm.

The tests PC Magazine has posted use images that display in your browser. You can use them that way, of course, but the smart thing to do is to save the images in a folder on your hard drive so you can play with your monitor's adjustments at any time. Many users may not realize that any image displayed in your browser can be saved. Look for a ``Save as'' option in the File menu or in another menu. (Some browsers pop open a handy menu when you click the right mouse button.)

YOU MAY have noticed that the Web address I listed for PC Magazine follows the long format, using the hypertext Transport Protocol initials in front of the World Wide Web address. We'd been using the shortened form, because the best modern browsers now fill in the ``http'' section for you. But we're now printing addresses in full so that our automatic text-to-hypertext conversion software will translate the address we put in the newspaper into real hypertext links when you read this column on the Web.


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