Next time you’re browsing cyberspace, be careful about accepting “cookies” from strange Web sites.
A “cookie” is a tiny file that many Web sites now secretly write onto the hard disk drives of any computer that connects to their site.
Once deposited on the visiting computer’s hard drive, the cookie records information about what the visiting computer looks at and any purchases it might make at that particular Web site.
Each cookie is supposed to be able to read and record only the transactions made on the Web site that deposited it. So, the cookie left by the New York Times on-line service, for instance, cannot read data acquired by the Wall Street Journal’s cookie.
Privacy activists never have liked the fact that many popular Web sites now use their own customers’ hard disks to build electronic dossiers about their Web behavior without telling people about the practice or giving them any control over how the data might be used.
“It’s an issue of informed consent,” said Stanton McCandlish of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group in San Francisco.
“Cookies aren’t bad per se, and in some cases, they might be useful,” McCandlish said, adding that the absence of a requirement for customer consent means “the cookie protocol is basically half-baked.”
Now, several third-party software developers are coming out with programs that let cybernauts see which cookies secretly have been stored on their hard drives and remove those freeloading data-nuggets if they so choose.
Preston Gralla, executive editor of the ZDNet Software Library in Cambridge, Mass., used his company’s new software tool, CookieMaster, to scan his computer’s hard drive. (CookieMaster is available free at www.hotfiles.com.)
“I see cookies for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo, Infoseek, HotWired, Slate, Microsoft Network, WebCrawler, Netscape,” Gralla said, reciting a partial list culled from his hard drive.
Gralla said many of these cookies are useful, storing his password for that Web site so he doesn’t have to remember it each time he logs on.
“Some cookies you will want; others you’ll want to delete,” he said. “This software is about giving people choice.”
CookieMaster works on Windows computers.
Similar software called CookieCutter will be available in January from Pretty Good Privacy Inc., a company founded by noted privacy activist Phil Zimmermann. CookieCutter will work on Windows 95, Windows NT and Macintosh System 7 computers and will cost $19.95. Details are available on Pretty Good Privacy’s Web site (www.pgp.com).