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Student José Amador likes to use his email account at yahoo.com. "I find paper so obsolete," he says. Amador is not worried about the privacy of this account. Perhaps he and the many other people that use yahoo email should be concerned, however. All users of Yahoo mail are having their actions tracked.
Yahoo monitors the actions of users, in part, by using "cookies." Cookies are small files that record visits to web pages. When you open up a cookie dispensing web page, the web server sends one or more of these files to your browser. The cookies will usually contain a number that is unique to that browser. Then the next time that this browser opens that particular page, the web site will both send a new cookie and retrieve the old one. This makes it possible, for sites to compile lists of how often visitors go to a particular page as well as when they visit it.
By themselves, cookies cannot reveal the identity of the user. All these files can do is store information about domain names and the rough location of the visitor. That said, if the site requires registration and a sign in -as is the case with yahoo email, for example- then site administrators can combine the two streams of data with ease. Cookies also cannot send viruses. They are only text files thus preventing that danger. Readers who want to view the cookies stored on their browser should search for a file called on cookies.txt on PCs or a file called MagicCookie on Macs.
Web site administrators say that the primary purpose of cookies is not to track Internet surfing habits. Rather they argue that cookies allow users to customize their experiences on the web. Services like My Yahoo would not work nearly as smoothly without cookies.
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Furthermore some argue that cookies allow advertisers to better serve consumers. Josh Quittner made this point in a January 29, 1999 column for Time magazine. (It is available online at http://www.pathfinder.com/time/digital/yourtech/0,2936,19123,00.html.) Quittner says "advertising is unavoidable" so "the smarter the ads, the better." He then closes the column by saying "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go order some books, wine and pharmaceuticals online. And I don't care who knows it."
Various governments have acknowledged these concerns. A number of European countries are considering legislation that would make it illegal for businesses to amass information in this fashion without first warning people. In the United States the opposition is less powerful but it does exist. In March of 1998 the U.S. Department of Energy released a report on cookies with mixed conclusions. On one hand the report said that generally there was no problem with the use of these files. But this would only be the case if businesses remained ethical in how they used cookies.
Proponents of cookies like to brush aside these privacy concerns with a quartet of arguments. They deny that it is possible for cookies to scan hard drives or capture valuable information such as credit card numbers. Furthermore the server that sent the cookie is the only one that can read them. If that is not reassuring enough then users can easily block cookies if they so choose. All it takes is a couple of clicks after opening open preferences from edit menu in both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Finally they point out that web sites can know a lot of things about visitors such as the type of browser being used and the Internet Protocol number of the user regardless of whether cookies are being used.
The main problem with either model is that they fail to consider that a velvet glove tends to cover the iron fist (stare) of surveillance in the real world. Sociologist David Lyon makes this argument in his excellent 1994 book The Electronic Eye: The Rise of the Surveillance Society. The publication date precludes any mention of cookies yet Lyon perfectly describes the ambiguities that surround these files. It is false and wrong to deny that cookies can make surfing the web more fun. At the same time, though, cookies do allow for the increased surveillance of people.
Lyon goes on to explain that this surveillance is not harmless. It is not just about providing people with ads better suited to their interests. Rather this information helps to create electronic identities of people. The information contained in these identities will do a lot to determine whether a person can get a loan or access to credit. Since consumption is the primary means in countries such as the U.S. for people to feel that they are part of the mainstream, Lyon contends that what is at stake is no less than decisions over who are full-fledged citizens and who are not. Of course none of this is new. Businesses have long determined the credit ratings of people and sociologists have argued that this plays an important role in the construction of an underclass. And cookies are far from the only means of monitoring people on the Internet so this process would be going on even if these files never existed.
So are they worth it? There is no simple answer to this question. Mere individual choice is not enough however. It is easy to say that people who want the convenience of cookies should accept them while others should set their browsers to reject these files. Yet, as any electronic commerce enthusiast will say, the standards of the future are be determined on the Internet right now. In the future people might not have the choice on whether to accept cookies or not. For that reason as well as the stakes that are involved, it is necessary to begin a public discussion on what is acceptable about cookies and what is not. Ironically and luckily, the medium that spawned cookies -the World Wide Web- makes it relatively easy to have just such a conversation.