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Cookies - What they are and how they are used

Cookies are text files stored on your computer that web sites use to keep track of information their site requires. This can be as simple as a placeholder that indicates for you what you have already seen on that page (usually by changing the text color) or remembers your preferences. These cookies have no contact with anyone since the info they contain is meant solely for your benefit.

However, some companies use those cookies to track where you have been and what you have done. The difference depends on whether the cookie is first party or a third party cookie. Third party cookies are set not by the web site you are viewing, but rather by a site located elsewhere. This is the case with most advertising banners. Of course, there are also companies that outright abuse the technology in order to track web surfers all over the internet.

One such company is advertising giant DoubleClick. Cookies, by design, are meant to be accessible only by the site that sets them. This is to keep one web site from reading the cookies set while a person is on another site. DoubleClick exploits a loophole by running ad banners from its own servers, and using those servers to set and read cookies.

DoubleClick has ads on thousands of web sites and can read any cookie set by any of them. In this manner, DoubleClick uses these cookies to track web surfers from one web site to the next the same way a rancher brands his cattle and tracks their movement across on the plains. DoubleClick is most at fault for the misconception that cookies are spyware.

How to stop third party tracking cookies

It is a simple matter to disallow cookies from servers not located on the site that you are currently loading.

Mozilla and Netscape

In Mozilla and Netscape, go to Edit > Preferences. In the dialog go to Privacy & Security > Cookies and select "Enable cookies for the originating web site only". We are uncertain about older versions of these browsers. (example)

Internet Explorer

In Internet Explorer 6, go to Tools > Internet Options. Click the privacy tab and press the "Advanced" button. Check "Override automatic cookie handling" and "Block" under Third-party cookies. Your setting for First-party cookies is up to you, but we suggest selecting "Prompt" as well as "Always allow session cookies". Be warned, the prompts will quickly drive you nuts. See the next item. (example)

Internet Explorer 5 and lower does not have the ability to block third party cookies. An excellent tool for controlling cookies that is compatible with IE 5 and IE 6 is AnalogX's CookieWall. CookieWall will ask you just once what to do with a particular cookie. It will apply that decision every time it encounters that cookie in the future. (example)

Many people say that Internet Explorer 6's cookie handling makes the use of CookieWall unnecessary. I disagree with that opinion. There are a lot of sites run by arrogant fools who will refuse to allow you access until you agree to accept their cookies. Internet Explorer (and indeed, all browsers) will reject a cookie immediately if it is set to do that, and the web site will know it happened. Until you change the settings, you will not be able to access some sites. That is why I prefer CookieWall, because your browser accepts the cookie and the web site is satisfied. What the site doesn't realize is that CookieWall has deleted their precious cookie the instant the cookie is detected.

Opera

In the Opera browser, these settings are located in File > Preferences > Privacy Preferences. In the second drop box under Cookies, set it to Do Not Accept Third Party Cookies. (example)

Viewing and editing your cookies

Opera

Opera is an incredible browser. It has a very large number of features and it's fast as hell. One feature that is very inadequate is the built-in cookie manager. Among its other flaws, Opera's cookie manager fails to give you the ability to delete, or even to view existing cookies.

Thankfully, there is a third party program called Opera File Explorer that allows users of Opera 4.0 and later to view and maintain Opera's Cache, Cookies, Global History, and Visited Links. The program is pretty crude. It is 16-bit software that probably would be more at home on Windows 3.1 than XP, but it seems to work fine on all versions of Windows.

Internet Explorer

While CookieWall does a fine job of managing Internet Explorer cookies as they are being set, it is very awkward to use for browsing and deleting existing cookies. For that, Karen Kenworthy's Cookie Viewer does a much better job. In fact, Cookie Viewer is nearly identical to Mozilla's built-in cookie manager, with the exception that it can't block permanently the cookies you tell it to delete.

Mozilla and Netscape

Mozilla has a very sensible cookie manager built right into it. Go to Edit > Preferences. In the dialog, go to Privacy & Security > Cookies and click the "Manage stored cookies" button.

From Mozilla's cookie manager, you can scroll through every cookie present and view the contents, expiration date, the web site that set it, and much more. You can selectively delete cookies, decide whether to permanently block cookies from those sites, and even remove all cookies with one button.

Conclusion

Cookies are not spyware, but they do present a privacy problem because of the behavior of companies such as DoubleClick. Despite that behavior, cookies are more useful than they are harmful. With the tools and methods mentioned above, you can deal with cookies on your terms, not on the terms of those who would use them to violate your privacy.

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