Cookie Worries Are Unfounded, U.S. Government Says

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  Cookie Worries Are Unfounded, U.S. Government Says
By Andrew Craig, TechWeb News

A U.S. government agency has advised Internet users that the use of cookies -- the popular technique for tracking website visitors -- does not compromise the privacy of users or the security of their computers.

Claims made by privacy activists over recent months that cookies have the potential to be used by website operators to spy on Internet users or to deliver harmful code to their computers are incorrect, the U.S. Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory Capability said in an information bulletin issued Friday.

Cookies are lines of data sent to an Internet user's computer by some Web servers when the user's Web browser visits the server. These cookies remain in the user's computer and can thereafter be read and updated when the browser requests pages from the same server.

Cookies are widely used by advertisers and website owners to monitor users' online activity, including what sites they visit, when they do so, what operating system they use, and what browser software they use.

Web cookies are popularly seen as programs that can scan a hard drive and gather information about the computer's user, the bulletin said. Such information allegedly includes "passwords, credit card numbers, and a list of the software on your computer." But "none of this is close to the truth," it said.

Information gathered using cookies -- chiefly being a user's numerical Internet address, browser type, and OS type -- can also be recorded in Web servers' log files, the bulletin said. "Cookies just make it easier," it said. A server "cannot find out your name or e-mail address, or anything about your computer using cookies," the bulletin added.

However, not all privacy activists are convinced that cookies are harmless pieces of code. One major concern about cookies is they could allow marketing companies to profile individual users by monitoring their activity over hundreds of websites using a single cookie, said Dave Banisar, staff council at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an organization dedicated to protecting privacy rights in electronic environments, such as the Internet.

The most recent versions of the two main browsers, Navigator and Internet Explorer, let users chose to be warned before receiving cookies from websites, or to block them completely. But this doesn't go far enough, said Banisar. "The default has got to be that information is not collected in the first place," so users have to specifically activate their browser to accept cookies, he said.

Also see: Government working on browser solution for new cookie law, says spokesman - Software to keep your data secure


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