Electronic-age junk mail 

Cookies add junk to Internet diet

Junk mail: It isn't just from the Postman anymore.

In the olden days, you'd get yourself a couple magazine subscriptions, and in no time your mailbox would be stuffed with advertising pitches.

Now we have electronic junk food, with one crucial difference. Companies looking to market their products just to you can cull extremely detailed information of your personal tastes and interests from your web travels. Each time you click (on some web sites, with some Internet browsers) you send a message to marketers who use the information to sell their wares to you.

This information includes, but is not limited to, how you arrived at a site, how long you stay there, the order in which you explore portions of the site, whether you buy anything, which banner advertisement is displayed, and whether you click on it. Also to be gathered from merely arriving at a site are your operating system details, browser software model and version, screen resolution, service provider, country, state, zip code, and area code.

And it can all be done with "cookies," little text files that websites can write to -- and read from -- your hard disk. When you return to a site, the contents of the cookie is sent back to the server, which can then provide you with customized content. And the cookies can persist for months or even years, so it becomes possible to track changes in browsing habits.

But some privacy advocates claim that eventually such information gathering could be used for more devious goals. They imagine health insurance companies buying information from search engines about who is doing searches for "discount cigarettes." And the FBI is probably interested in who's surfing the kiddie porn sites.

Ordinarily, cookies can only be used within a site. In other words, Yahoo can't check on Amazon.com's cookies. However, companies such as Doubleclick and Microsoft aim to get around that.

Doubleclick is an advertising network involved with scores of the most popular websites, including U.S. News online (www.usnews.com) and AltaVista (www.altavista.digital.com). By maintaining a central database of web surfer information, they're able to serve up heavily targeted banner ads, assuring that a user never sees the same ad twice (unless the advertiser has paid for multiple impressions).

Microsoft has pursued its traditional consume the competition strategy, having deftly merged the previously distinct industries of computers, communications, publishing, and entertainment, gathering user information along the way. For instance, its "Sidewalk" series of city guides (11 major cities covered so far) offer exhaustive sports, movies, night life, news, and arts coverage, updated daily and customized to your preferences. Check out the Terms of Use, however, and you'll discover that by merely accessing the site, you've implicitly agreed to all sorts of conditions, including granting Microsoft the right to make use of your email address and physical location, in addition to your taste in movies, politics, and sex.

How will they use it? Any way that they please, of course, and you can bet that includes selling your information to the highest bidders.

Some say this is merely clever marketing, but the bottom line is that every web user should bear in mind that every time they "register" on a site, providing such information, it may be sold or rented to other entities. Always look for an explanation of what is to be done with registration information before clicking that "Submit" button.

Of course, it's possible to protect yourself from cookies completely. Last year, both popular browsers began offering the option to block all cookies. Check your "preferences" or "settings" options to enable cookie blocking. Remember, though, many legitimate sites will use cookies solely in order to provide you with a more pleasurable browsing experience, and some online shopping systems rely on cookies to work; block cookies, and you won't be able to use their system at all.

For more information on cookies and their uses, point your favorite browser to www.cookiecentral.com.

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