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Cookies and Internet Privacy

March 14, 1999

What is a Cookie?

“Netscape’s Client Side State definition:Cookies are a general mechanism which server side connections (such as CGI scripts) can use to both store and retrieve information on the client side of the connection. The addition of a simple, persistent, client-side state significantly extends the capabilities of Web-based client/server applications.”Kington, Andy, Andy’s HTTP Cookie Notes, Available from http://www.illuminatus.com/cookie_pages/ [modified 6 June 1997, cited 14 March, 1999]

In English, this means that webservers can create web pages that will customize from user to user. By saving these preferences on your computer, the web page can reload appearing to your chosen options. This is accomplished by retrieving the cookie, through your browser, when you access the web page.

Where cookies and privacy clash

The problem with privacy begins with the cookie revealing personal information that you do not wish to be available.

“Your browser is probably revealing more than you might want: which computer you are coming from, what software and hardware you are using, details of the link you clicked on, and possibly even your email address.”

Junkbusters, How Web Servers’ Cookies Threaten Your Privacy, [Online], Available from http://www.junkbusters.com/ht/en/cookies.html, [written 11 December, 1998, cited 14 March, 1999]

By receiving this information, the webservers could sell it as part of an advertising database resulting in both electronic and paper junk mail. Legislative action has been enacted to curtail the illegal use of personal information.

“The WWW offers a wide variety of communication, information and interaction. Cookies provide for necessary customization. But the Internet is not outside the law. Existing regulations, targeted at protecting personal information, limit the use and application of cookies. Current cookie usage violates such norms. Content providers continuing to use cookies that violate these regulations and browser producers unwilling or incapable of bringing their products into accordance with these laws both risk legal liability. It should be their concern to avoid legal action; and it should be our concern to safeguard our privacy.”

Mayer-Schoenberger, Viktor, “The Internet and Privacy Legislation: Cookies for a Treat? “, West Virginia Journal of Law and Technology, [journal online], Available from http://www.wvjolt.wvu.edu/wvjolt/current/issue1/articles/mayer/mayer.htm, [cited 14 March, 1999]

Another possibility of potential privacy violition is cookies retreiving information from other locations on your hard drive.

“The safety of personal information stored on the user’s hard drive has also been of concern in the cookie debate. Concerns have been raised about the possibility of cookies being written that would allow access to other information that the user has stored.”

Pitt, Andrew, Internet Privacy: The Cookie Controversy”, [online], Available from http://www.cookiecentral.com/ccstory/cc3.htm, [cited 14 March, 1999]

What can we do to minimize our risk

I feel that the best way to minimize your risk is to be careful with allowing sites to place cookies in your system. This can easily be accomplished by changing your internet settings to allow manual confirmation of each cookie.

“You can prevent any cookies from being sent to your system using the browser options. In Internet Explorer 4.0, choose the View, Internet Options command, click the Advanced tab and click the Disable All Cookie Use option. In Netscape 4.0, choose the Edit, Options command, click on Advanced and click the Disable Cookies option. After that, no cookies will be stored on your system. You will need to turn cookies back on if you want to use any online services that require them. You can also choose the option to prompt you before accepting a cookie, but at many sites you will be continually closing the warning dialog box.‘

http://www.ciac.org/, INFORMATION BULLETIN I-034: Internet Cookies, [html], [12 March, 1998, cited 14 March 14, 1999], Available from http://www.ciac.org/ciac/bulletins/i-034.shtml

This can become tedious with the number of sites using cookies today. Another option is to download a cookie management program from any one of the shareware sites on the Internet. Most search engines have links to a shareware site

My third option is to simply limit which sites you choose to view, only go to sites you know are safe.


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