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  PC-Net's PC News - October, 2000
 
Don Watkins

The Great Cookie Debate - Part 2

By Don Watkins

 
 
 

 

October 2000óLast month's newsletter took a look at how cookies work and some Internet basics. I hope it conveyed the concept that the Internet is a public network and as a public network, it's, well, public.

Privacy in My Perspective
The privacy issues surrounding technology in general have their complexities. The more technology advances, the more the perception of privacy is threatened by the ability to collect data. On the flip side there is a cost to protecting privacy. If companies are denied information, they will market their products less efficiently and thus more expensively. As consumers I think it's fair to say that we will pay some, if not all, of this expense.

Having come from an environment where online expenses were as much as $22.50 an hour for 9600 baud I probably have a difference slant on things. There's no free lunch. If I get to play online virtually free, in exchange for a company thinking it's gathering information on a customer base, perhaps, in my book at least, it is a fair trade.

The Cookie and Privacy
While there are all sorts of ways that a company can collect information on you let's focus on cookies and try and nail down how this could be done.

An advertiser could place a cookie on your computer and record which ads you see and which ads you click on and thus target you with certain ads. Further if the same advertiser participated on multiple sites they could collect info that you'd visited site A and site B.

The question then becomes, does the advertiser actually "know" who you are. True, they can recognize your computer from a cookie that they've placed on your computer, and they know your IP address, but unless you've volunteered additional personal information, there is no way for them to know for sure who you are. Remember from last month: you can only be identified by your IP address, not your name, not your address, etc. unless you give it up!

At this point you need to ask yourself if this is a privacy issue.

Cookies and Security
I've heard concerns that it would be possible to store credit card information, etc. in a cookie and that somehow a bad person could read all your cookies and collect that information. While some web sites have been compromised and credit card numbers have been stolen I have never heard of a case of this happening with cookies. In my opinion it would be a poor site indeed that put your credit card number in a cookie anyway.

Other Cookie Crumbs
I've heard other stories speculating on what cookies might do. While I appreciate that there are people out there watching out for the worse I have yet to see any claims that these activities have actually been put into practice.

The Bottom Line
I think there are areas of online privacy concerns. While there are conflicting stories I think there is a very good chance that actual user lists have been sold and that some products have tracked user activities, knowing full well who you are, without disclosure. I might add that when these are discovered these guys are taken out to the woodshed and given the whacking they deserve.

However I haven't seen any of these activities documented as a problem via the use of cookies.

We make trade offs between convenience and privacy every day:

In addition to credit reporting organizations, those supermarket "member" cards and even video rentals are all tied to us as individuals. We give a perfect stranger our credit card in a restaurant and they take it off somewhere and who knows what goes on.

In my state we are now required to provide a social security number to get a driver's license. Now a number of people at the Department of Motor Vehicles have access to a number that, in the hands of the wrong person, can result in identity theft.

Your medical conditions may be reported to the Medical Information Bureau, a centralized database. Many insurance companies can access the MIB records, as can some employers. If you have privacy concerns ask the MIB for a copy of your records. Chances are a company you've never heard of has personal info that will surprise you. One organization's take on the MIB and a link to the MIB are available at http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs8-med.htm

Have you read the fine print in terms of what your financial institution can do with your personal information and what you can do to restrict them from using that information? It will vary from state to state and it will probably be very difficult to find, but it's worth checking out, and you may be surprised.

This isn't meant to scare you, but to put the issue of cookies in perspective and to help you make an informed decision on how you want to handle cookies. At the end of the day, it's a decision that we must all make on our own but you'll want to make that decision with as much information, put in the proper perspective, which you can gather.

Personally I'll take the convenience.

Until next month, best in computing.

 

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