Threats to your online privacy, Cookies

This discussion about cookies is not about chocolate-chip cookies but a special kind of computer file. Websites that have been coded to so so will attempt to deposit a cookie on your computer whenever you visit the website. Relax – this website doesn’t do that.

So you might be wondering what is a cookie and why would someone want to put a cookie on your computer and what can you do about it? A cookie is a small file that is deposited on your computer, with or without your knowledge. The cookie may be persistent or only be session cookie that disappears when you leave the website. Persistent cookies stick around. Websites can look at the cookies on your computer. Cookies deposit attempts may be made by honourable websites and not-so-honourable websites. For example let’s say you have allowed cookies to be deposited when you purchased a salmon fishing book from an online bookstore. When you visit the website again you might get a message welcoming you back and announcing that because of your preference for books (based on your previous purchase) they want to draw your attention to a new book about trolling for salmon. This would be somewhat disconcerting perhaps but is relatively benign. However there are more nefarious uses of cookies. For examples pornography websites are infamous for their many strategies to keep you within their clutch…. and more. If you have let a cookie from a website be deposited on your computer you may be letting other websites be aware of your online activities. You likely don’t think its anybody else’s business what websites you have viewed but the cookies are a virtual trail of breadcrumbs of your online activities.

So you might think why not change a setting in our computers and refuse all cookies? Well some websites are very annoying because they don’t let you view any pages without taking cookies. In some sites some features such a site search might be disabled without taking cookies. The cookie may be harmless and merely be telling the website what keywords you used in your search string. Sometimes the cookie stores a password we’ve entered to log in to a website. So we have to accept some cookies to achieve our objective with a particular website. It is in our own interest to take some control over how our computers accept cookies and what cookies they accept.

As most folks in the world use Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Internet Explorer the following is based specifically on that combination but users of other combinations should be able to explore the equivalents on their computer and be more in control of their cookie management issues. Internet Explorer (IE) versions 4 and 5 provide you with the simple cookie deposition choices of “accept”, “refuse” or “prompt”. Open IE and click on Tools/Internet Options and look around. You should find it in the Advanced (or Security page – its been a while) where you will see the 3 choices. The default choice is “accept” so all cookies coming from all the websites you have visited have been deposited on your computer. You can change the setting if you like. To see what cookies are already on your computer users of Windows 95, 98 & ME will find a “Cookies” folder in the Windows folder of your hard drives. Users of Windows 2000 or XP should look in the “Documents and Settings” folder where you should find a folder for every user and therein find a Cookies folder for each user. You might have to enable the viewing of system files to see them. Be prepared for a shock, especially if you have never taken any control over cookie acceptance and your computer has been visiting many websites. You can delete the cookie files without hurting your computer but you may have to supply a password again and accept the cookie in the future.

So lets say you change the choice from “accept” to “refuse”. Then you will find that for some websites you are denied access to pages you really want to view or features such as Searching that site won’t work. The only other choice is “prompt” and that is what I used to use with these versions of IE. So then whenever you hit a website that tries to give you cookies you will get a privacy alert where you could accept or block the cookie deposition attempt. NOTE: If you put a check mark in the box so you don’t get the warning again what you have actually accomplished is to change the setting back to “accept”. Some websites are quite annoying as they might throw 30 or more cookie attempts at you before giving up. Sometimes the cookies are from third parties. For example you have gone to a website that has lots of advertisers on it (good ol’ pornsites are famous for that). Each advertiser wants to put a cookie on your computer.

Now for the good news. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer version 6 (available for Windows 98 and higher) has much improved cookie handling features and in my humble opinion is the single most desired improvement over earlier versions. If you are at all uncomfortable with how your browser handles cookies I suggest that upgrading to IE 6 is worth it, even if your connection to the Internet is only a slow dialup connection as it will take quite some time to download up to 22 Mb of files for the download. Hopefully someone you know has a fast connection (cable or DSL) and can download the files for you and put them on a CD or Zip drive for you. While connected to the Internet with your current version of Internet Explorer and click Tools and then Windows Update. This will take to the Microsoft website where you can download IE 6 and probably other Windows updates that you should have installed too. Expect to restart your computer when the first phase of the installation is complete.