Big Brother is here Featured

10:50am EDT October 23, 2001

Ever hear of cookies? Not the chewy, chocolate-chip laden ones your mother used to make; I'm talking about the self-generating files of information stored in your computer that quietly track your online activity.

These cookies can tell companies what you view online, whether you've made purchases through their Web site, how long you spend at their site, and so on. It's frighteningly Orwellian in many ways -- especially since none of us ask for these cookies to be generated or stored on our computers. They just appear. And in huge numbers. Last time I checked, my PC had roughly 225 cookies on its hard drive.

When I first learned about cookies, I was appalled by the apparent intrusion into what I felt was my own business. What right did a company have to track any information about me without my permission? But then, when I thought about it awhile longer, I realized this Big Brother phenomenon could actually save me some time.

If companies know, based on the information stored in my cookies file, that I'm shopping for life insurance or a mobile phone, for instance, they could bring relevant offers to me. They could vie for my business. And when I make my purchasing decision, the information I enter to complete the transaction online could also be stored in my cookies so I won't have to fill out the same form again if I decide to add to my purchase at a later date.

Essentially, the Web site will recognize me, just as a store clerk would at your favorite shop.

Similarly, if a company knows what sort of information I check on the Web daily, perhaps it could bring that information to me, saving me the trouble of searching dozens of Web sites on my own.

The possibilities are countless. And, although some say the potential for abusing such privileged information exists, I'm not convinced that it's enough of a threat to warrant sleepless nights. If the thought of cookies silently accumulating on your hard drive bothers you greatly, you can delete or disable them.

But, in doing so, you're resigning yourself to surfing a rather bland version of the Web; one in which you're anonymous and, therefore, unable to take advantage of customized services companies are ready and willing to provide to you. That's a waste.

Don't toss your cookies; savor them. Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.