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Is Your Computer Becoming a Cookie Monster?
Suzanne Sell, SOHO Buyer's Guide

If you###re an Internet user, your computer is sure to be brimming with cookies - not the warm, chewy kind you wash down with a cold glass of milk, but an inedible and controversial kind you may never see.

In Web parlance, a cookie is a small file stored in your computer that serves as an identification marker. When you visit certain sites or request information, the site###s server looks for your ID. If it can###t find one, it "passes a cookie" to your computer (usually without your ever noticing it) so the server will be able to identify your computer the next time you visit that site. The concept is much like the Caller ID feature on phone systems - it lets web sites track the behavior of a particular visitor.

To some, this is too reminiscent of Big Brother for comfort. Many Internet users see cookies as an invasion of their privacy in an otherwise completely anonymous medium. Good or bad, cookies offer great communication power: the ability to tailor a message to an individual user.

Search engines use cookies to categorize the searches a web surfer performs, and customize ad banners for that individual. If you frequently search for food-related sites, you###re likely to see ads for restaurants. And because the site knows how many times you###ve seen each ad, it will send you a new ad from time to time to freshen your experience.

Cookies are used to store information on online shopping, too. If you###ve purchased an item from a site before, a cookie enables you to make additional purchases without having to re-enter your address and credit card information. It###s the cookie that allows you to use virtual shopping carts to store one item while you browse for others. And it tracks your purchase patterns so a commercial site can offer you specials related to your own interests. If you browse through the mystery section of Amazon Books, for instance, a cookie may alert that site to send you a discount offer on a hot new Sue Grafton release. If Amazon shares its cookies with (or sells its customer list to) Suncoast Video, you may receive a discount on a boxed set of Sherlock Holmes videos.

From the business standpoint, the cookie is a stupendous marketing tool. But is there a dark side to this technology? Take some comfort in this: unless you register your name and address on a site, the cookie will be able to identify your computer, not you personally. Theoretically, it###s possible to design a cookie that could search your hard drive for personal information. Security issues such as this are a hot topic of discussion in the online industry.

If you###re leery about being (in the words of one fearful Internet user) "electronically tagged like an animal," you can control the cookies on your computer. Recent versions of popular browsers offer the option to turn off, delete, or refuse cookies. In Netscape 3.0, for example, select "Options," "Network Preferences," and "Protocols" to locate the buttons that control cookies. (In Netscape 4.0, select "Preferences" and "Advanced.") To see how often cookies are used, check the box that says "Show an Alert Before Accepting a Cookie," and hit the surf!

What###s in Your Cookie Jar?

Visited any of these sites? They###re just a few of the hundreds that use cookies:

www.abc.com

www.adobe.com

www.amazon.com

www.bigbook.com

www.cdnow.com

www.citysearch.com

www.disney.com

www.dreamleague.com

www.forbes.com

www.golfweb.com

www.hotbot.com

www.iworld.com

www.imall.com

www.infoseek.com

www.jpl.nasa.gov

www.levi.com

www.microsoft.com

www.movielink.com

www.msn.com

www.msnbc.com

www.nba.com

www.netscape.com

www.nytimes.com

www.paramount.com

www.realaudio.com

www.sporszone.com

www.toyota.com

www.travelchannel.com

www.wal-mart.com

www.usatoday.com

www.usnews.com

www.webcrawler.com

www.wired.com

www.wsj.com

www.yahoo.com

For the record: There are no cookies used at www.cosoho.com!

Suzanne Sell is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Colorado SOHO Buyer###s Guide. For a list of the publication###s distribution locations, the names of local home-based business groups, or other information, call 303.980.4707 or visit: http://www.cosoho.com on the World Wide Web.