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ComputerLink articles by Brian Pitre

Cookies, it seems, are okay

Not too long ago, people thought it was unsafe to make credit card transactions over the Internet. Fortunately, people have come to understand that it is safer to use credit cards on the Web than it is to give them to a waiter or waitress in a restaurant.

The newest Internet misunderstanding results from rumors about a simple technology in Web browsers known as cookies. An increasing number of people have asked me about cookies, and their main concern is whether cookies are bad. Some of the interesting questions I have been asked about cookies include:

"Can they tell who I am when I visit a Website?" "Can they capture my email address without my knowledge and is that where spam comes from?" "Can cookies allow others to look inside my computer and find something that resembles a Social Security number or a bank balance?" "Will cookies damage my computer?" "Do cookies spread viruses?" "Are cookies the work of hackers?"

The simple answer to all of these is no Ė cookies are good!

"Magic Cookies," as Netscape originally dubbed them, are tokens that are exchanged on the end user computer to personalize data to the visitor. When you visit a Website, your Netscape or Microsoft Explorer browser reads and writes to a small text file on your computerís hard drive named Cookies.txt. Only the issuer of the cookies can read these text files, so they are not shared, no program can be executed, and they cannot damage your machine. Cookies can only contain the information you disclose on the site. If you donít disclose information, they cannot retrieve it.

Cookies are good because they make it easier to browse the Internet. They reduce redundant tasks, replace passwords, customize information, and enable visitors to personalize a Website to their individual preferences. Although information is exchanged between your computer and a server without your knowledge, it ultimately benefits you.

Let me provide you with some examples. If you have registered on a site, for instance, cookies can greet you personally upon a return visit such as "Welcome back Brian Pitre." This can only occur, however, after you have told them who you are by registering on that specific site. The New York Times site is another great example. After you register, they make it possible to visit the site without a password Ė cookies do it automatically.

Other uses of cookies can only occur during a single client server session. These examples include using cookies as a place to store information contained in a shopping cart system for Online ordering over the Internet, or insuring that rotating banner ads on a site display different ads during the course of your visit.

Imagine the difficulty of keeping preferences for every browser that has ever visited Yahoo! It would be impossible to keep all the preferences on the Web server since the data would amount to billions of bytes. It is more effective for each userís browser to keep their own preferences in the cookies.txt file.

The US government quietly issued an upbeat advisory praising Internet cookies last March. The bulletin, which came from the energy departmentís Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC), concluded that the hype about cookies has far outweighed the actual hazards of the technology.

Cookie technology need not be feared or condemned. Cookies benefit the visitor by enhancing their experience on Websites that use them. As with almost any technology, people can use it properly or abuse it. The value cookies provide outweigh the threat that one might hear about freedom and privacy in cyberspace. Cookies, it seems, are ok.

 

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