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Ethics Paper The Use of Cookies

A cookie is not just a sweat tasting baked food anymore. Today in the age of the Internet the word cookie has taken on a whole new meaning. A cookie in cyberspace is a small piece of information written to the hard drive of an Internet user when he or she visits a web site that offers cookies. It is a very small text file containing a variety of information including the name of the web site that issued it, where on site a user has visited, passwords and usernames belonging to the user. In some cases cookies can contain such private information as credit card numbers and other personal data. Many times Internet users have no idea that a cookie was ever placed onto their hard drive. This is why the placement of cookies onto hard drives is invasive, deceitful and ethically wrong.

Cookies are an invasive tool used by companies to track users and their profiles. These cookies are placed onto the hard drives of Internet users; their hard drives are their personal property and should not be tampered with. If the government were to place packets of information onto people s computers there would be lawsuits left and right fighting these actions. Private companies should not enjoy the benefit of violating the Fourth Amendment to gain information about Internet users.

One of the main functions of a cookie is to track which web sites a user has visited. Web sites claim that the information provided is totally voluntary and offered by the users. When the surfing habits of individual users are tracked, the supply of information turns from voluntary to involuntary. There would be large amounts of public outcry if the federal government kept track of each place someone visited and there should be public outcry when web sites track people s surfing habits.

In addition to being invasive, cookies are downright deceitful. Many companies claim that cookies are only used by the site that issued them while in fact, other web sites can access cookies and view the information they contain. Cookies are stored as simple text files. However, if a web user tries to open and view a cookie they see nothing but encrypted data that is unreadable. Although the encryption is a security feature, it prevents users from seeing what sort of data is being stored and viewed and deceives the user into thinking nothing is really wrong.

Cookies are also being used for different purposes than from when they were first introduced. At first cookies were used as a way to allow repeat visitors to a web site be automatically logged in if they had previously logged on. In the changing ways of the Internet, the purpose of the cookie is also changing. With the increase of advertising on the Internet many firms are using cookies to create user profiles which will be used later to send specific target ads. Some may argue that this is good for consumers for now they will only see ads that might interest them. However, people are being tricked and being turned into mindless web shoppers.

Once these user profiles are created another ethical issue arises. Some firms such as Lycos and Infoseek have admitted that they are aiming to crate a tracking system that would create highly detailed profiles of users search patterns. Once these profiles are created, these two companies plan to sell their profiles to other companies that are interested in buying them. Now instead of one company gathering information about users, many companies will have access to this information.

The question arises Is there any way to prevent my personal information from being accessed via a cookie? The answer is in fact yes. Updated browsers such as Netscape 4.x and IE 4.x allow Internet users the option to block cookies from being placed on their hard drives. Although this may be true, many people do not know about this feature. Also, if the feature that rejects cookies is turned on, users may face problems in getting onto web sites because they require surfers to accept cookies before being allowed onto their page.

Cookies are a hot topic in the Internet industry. Most average users are not aware of the amount of cookies being placed on their hard drives. Nor are they aware of the huge amount of information they are supplying to companies everyday. If Internet users had the right information about cookies and knew what they are giving away, most people would reject cookies altogether.


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