Date: Tue, 29 Jul 1997 01:13:35 -0400
From: Bob Rankin 
Subject: TOURBUS - 29 July 1997 - Closer Look At Cookies

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           TODAY'S TOURBUS TOPIC: A Closer Look At Cookies

Been surfing all morning?  Have a little snack.  Your web browser is
serving up cookies, but will they be to your liking?

Cookies is the term used for little chunks of data that web servers
can store on your hard drive.  Cookies record information about your
visit to a particular site, and can only be read back later by the
site that created them.  They are often used to make your web surfing
more personal and convenient, but some people fear that cookie abuse
could lead to loss of privacy.  Read on for a closer look at the good,
the bad and the crumbly aspects of web browser cookies.

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Cookies Are Good For You

More and more sites are using cookies to enhance your web experience and
enable some pretty cool features.  The ever popular Yahoo site uses
cookies to help you customize the site to suit your likings.  If you
specify that you want baseball scores, political headlines and a handful
of quotes from your stock portfolio, Yahoo will record those preferences
in a cookie.  Then each time you return, the Yahoo server will read that
cookie and customize the site accordingly.  It's kind of like going to a
restaurant where the waiter remembers your name and knows you like blue
cheese dressing and extra croutons on your salad.

Some sites require that you create a userid and password to login before
you can access certain content, but it can be a drag to remember and
enter this information each time you return.  By storing this data as a
cookie, you only have to enter it once.  Another good use for cookies is
to remember your preference for text versus graphics, or an aversion to

And if you do any online shopping, cookies make it possible to create a
"shopping cart" into which you can place your selections before checking
out.  You can even logoff half way through a shopping expedition and
pick up later right where you left off.

What's in a Cookie?

All of this reading and writing of cookies normally takes place without
the user knowing that it's going on behind the scenes.  Let's take the
mystery out of cookies by finding out where they live and what's inside
of them.  Cookies are stored in a variety of places on your hard disk,
depending on your browser and operating system.

If you use Netscape Navigator under Windows, all cookie data resides in
a single file called "cookies.txt" which is found in the C:\Program
Files\Netscape\Navigator folder.  The Mac version of Netscape uses a
file called "MagicCookie" found in the Netscape folder inside your
System Folder's Preferences folder.

With Microsoft Internet Explorer, there's a separate file in the
C:\Windows\Cookies folder for each site that wants to store cookies data
on your computer.  The Mac version of Explorer uses a file called
"cookies.txt" in the Cache sub-folder of the Explorer folder, which is
inside your System Folder's Preferences folder.

Once you locate your cookies file, take a look inside with a text editor
and you'll probably be surprised at the number of entries squirreled
away by sites you've never heard of.  That's because many popular sites
have banner ads that are managed by other companies such as DoubleClick
and LinkExchange.  When you visit the Alta Vista search engine, for
example, you'll get a cookie from DoubleClick.

Each line of the cookies file contains the name of the site that wrote
the entry, an expiration date, and some additional data.  It's important
to remember that a cookie cannot store any personal data such as your
name, e-mail address or phone number unless you enter that information
on a form at the site creating the cookie.  The safety features built
into the cookies technology does not allow a website operator to rifle
through the files on your hard disk, or to look at cookies that were
created by other sites.

Other crumbs of data that may be stored in cookies include your domain
name (the part to the right of the "@" sign in your e-mail address), the
date and time of your visit, the type of computer, operating system and
browser you have, and a history of the pages you visit at a specific
site.  Big deal, huh?

Can Cookies Be Bad For You?

None of the information stored in a cookies file is really shocking in
and of itself, but it's the ability to track the specific sites and
pages you visit that worries some people.  Since ad agencies like
DoubleClick have their hooks in many popular sites, there is the
potential that they could surreptitiously gather information on the web
surfing habits of individuals.  If this information was sold or
improperly analyzed, it could cause trouble in the wrong hands.  Right
now, DoubleClick says they only use cookies to keep users from seeing
the same ad too many times, but some are envisioning more frightening

Could you face the prospect of being denied a job because you visited a
website advocating the legalization of marijuana?  Get hit with an
insurance rate hike after visiting an AIDS patient informaton site?  Or
find the Feds at your door after browsing through online bomb making

Such prospects seem highly unlikely to yours truly, but privacy
advocates like Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education see danger
ahead.  "We have to keep online marketers out of the cookie jar," says
Chester.  "Such Orwellian practices to stealthily track every move made
online and share that information with other companies should be

Others are quick to point out that online services like America Online
and Compuserve have the ability to track the actions of subscribers at a
finer level, and know much more about their subscribers than cookies
could ever reveal to website operators.  Armed with your name, home
address, credit card number, and the ability to record every word you
write in the the "Cheatin' Hearts" chat room, one would think the
potential for abuse is much higher, but there is no anecdotal evidence
that it has ever happened.

Tossing Your Cookies

If you're convinced that cookies pose a threat to your privacy, and
you're willing to live without the convenience they provide, there are a
variety of ways to block, delete and even totally prevent cookies.

Both Netscape and Explorer give users the option to refuse cookies.
Under Netscape, select Options/Network Preferences/Protocols and check
the box reading "Show an alert before accepting a cookie".  This will
cause a popup to appear each time a site wants to create a cookie, and
you'll have the option to accept or refuse the cookie.  With Explorer,
you can do the same thing by selecting View/Options/Advanced and
checking the "Warn before accepting cookies" box.  This gives you the
option to accept cookies only from sites you trust, but gets annoying
after a while.

Another idea is to make your cookies file read-only.  This will prevent
any new cookies from being written to your hard disk, while allowing
cookies to function normally during a single browser session.  So you
could still use online shopping sites, but you'd miss out on the ability
to use customization features at sites like Yahoo.  Deleting your
cookies file after closing your browser would have pretty much the same

If you're really serious about online privacy, visit the Anonymizer
website ( and find out how to make all your web
viewing totally anonymous and frustrate the cookie senders.  You can
also download a variety of free or inexpensive shareware programs such
as Cookie Monster, Cookie Cutter and Cookie Crusher that give you total
control over cookies.

Learning More

If you want to learn more about the technical details behind cookies, or
delve further into the privacy and security issues, visit these sites on
the web:

  Netscape's Cookie Specs
  Andy's HTTP Cookie Info
  Cookie Central
  Electronic Privacy Information Center
  The Center for Democracy and Technology

That's all for today.  I hope this info helps you to understand the
truth about web cookies.  Feel free to pass this along to a friend!

More About My Linux Book

I've finally finished putting the sample chapters for my "No BS
Guide To Linux" book online.  If you're curious about Linux, have
a look at the Introduction.  Or if want to read a nice tutorial on
Unix command shells, see Chapter 2.  Pop on over to my home page at


and click on the book cover to find the sample chapters.  I'm also
offering special discounts on volume purchases, and commissions for
referrals that lead to sales.  You can pocket up to $10 per copy.
If you're an educator, sysop, or club member, ask me for details.

See you next time!  --Bob

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