Microsoft’s slogan “Where do you want to go today?” was the question to ask a few years ago. Now, as your surfing habits have become a hot commodity in today’s marketing world, that question has changed to, “Where have you been today?” This question is being answered by unsuspecting Web surfers who are providing valuable marketing data to advertisers through small files called “cookies.”
In this article, I will examine how cookies work and offer some tips on maintaining your privacy on the Web, including a great tool for taking control of your cookies.
Not a new phenomenon
Cookies were first developed several years ago to help Web site designers gather information about who visits their sites. They have since developed into a widely used information-gathering resource. Cookies are placed on a user’s hard drive and track where he or she goes on the Web. These small files track every move a user makes on the Internet and help marketing organizations compile vast amounts of consumer information.
Companies use this information for direct marketing to the consumer. In the past, your marketable information was obtained through credit applications, contest entries, or other forms filled out by the consumer. Now marketers gather this valuable information with cookies instead.
DoubleClick is probably the biggest information-gathering organization on the Net. This company gathers consumer information and then resells it to marketing firms. Cookies tell DoubleClick who you are, what type of machine you use, what type of browser you have, not to mention what you do on the Web.
Want to know if DoubleClick is tracking you? Search for a directory on your C: drive named “Cookies” or “Temporary Internet Files.” Open this directory and look at some of the cookies. Look for a file with “doubleclick.net” in the name or Internet address. If you open this cookie, through Notepad or another text editor, you’ll see something like the following: “id 9001000627fc0b6 doubleclick.net/ 0 1111154678 31581211 1956724121 11337668*.” This is your “cyberbrand.”
Beware of banner ads
Have you visited a Web site and noticed that every time you click back to the start page, the banner ad changes? These banner ads change because they are made using Java script, Flash, or ActiveX. But in some cases, these banner ads change as another way to quickly build a profile about someone’s surfing habits. Every time you click a “banner ad,” another cookie is placed on the hard drive telling the company what products interest you. This information can direct certain banners to your screen. In my case, being the huge golfing nut that I am, I always see a ton of banner ads wanting to sell me the latest club or instructional video.
Defending your identity with Window Washer
If you are like me, you want to maintain your privacy while surfing the Net. While cookies make it difficult to be anonymous, there is still hope. Many programs are available to help you combat the dreaded cookie monsters. One that I believe is particularly useful is called Window Washer. While this product, from Webroot Software, offers users loads of features at a great price, its main purpose is keeping your machine clean of all previous activities.
On the program’s main window is a Set button just to the right of the AOL, MSN, Internet Explorer check box, as you can see in Figure A.
By clicking the Set button, you will be taken to the Internet Explorer Wash Items screen, shown in Figure B. From this screen, you can configure Window Washer to keep your hard drive clean of temporary files, cache files, and, of course, cookies.
If you click the Keep button to the right of the Cookies check box, you can specify which cookies you want Window Washer to keep. For example, I want to keep cookies from TechRepublic.com, MSN, and ZDNet to avoid logging in to these sites every time I visit. To accomplish this, move the desired cookies from the list on the left to the right-hand column titled Cookie Keeper Bin. Then click Done. (See Figure C.)
You are now ready to wash your hard drive. From the Window Washer main window, shown in Figure A, click the Wash Now button. While this application doesn’t give you total Internet anonymity, it does give you control of how and when your personal information is given out and to whom it’s given. This goes a long way to ensure that you control the cookie instead of it controlling you.
How do you feel about maintaining your privacy on the Internet? Do you think we are compromising our privacy for a few flashy Web page gimmicks, or do you think this is good technological advancement? Post a comment below or write to Matthew Mercurio and let us know how you feel.