Articles & Columns » State of the Arts Tech Talk

I write a Tech Talk column for the bi-monthly newspaper State of the Arts, published by the Montana Arts Council. My latest is Virtual Private Networks. My archives are here and you can subscribe to my RSS feed with your feed reader or by by email.

State of the Arts for November/December, 2010: More About Online Privacy

Ever wonder why you can go back to a website you’ve logged into sometime in the last and the site will greet you by name?

As I pointed out last issue, you should be aware of the privacy implications of the information you put on social networking sites. But companies quietly gather lots of information about you and your online habits and you may not be aware of how they do it or the implications of their information gathering.

The fact that a website can “remember” you is not magic; what’s happened is the companies’ website has stored what’s called a “cookie” on your hard drive. Cookies are tiny bits of information that work with your web browser and tell the companies’ web server when you were there last, your account information, and some of what you did on that site.

According to the stores and advertisers, cookies enhance your browsing experience by providing relevant web pages and advertisements and enabling online shopping. Cookies are convenient, because you don’t have to constantly login to a site, the site “remembers” you and your shopping cart, and more.

But according to privacy advocates, cookies and the information they feed back to web companies can be a security risk. Some of the data stored in cookies and retrieved by web companies can be private in nature, obviously such as login information and your site usage.

And the usage metrics gathered by web companies know more about you than your Facebook page. And cookies help webpages – and companies – follow you from site to site.

But even though web browser cookies are a fact of life on the modern internet, you have some control over them and the information they hold.

All browsers offer to store logins and passwords for sites that require them, and that information goes into cookies. Decide if you really want to store that information, especially if you share a PC at home. And on a public computer at a library or internet cafe, never allow your information to be saved.

Web browsers themselves have cookie options, to. You can select to store no cookies at all, only store cookies from primary sites, and not store cookies from third party sites, such as advertisers.

If you choose to not store cookies at all, you’ll be constantly nagged with requests to save them, and you won’t be able to fully use some sites, like banking and shopping sites, because those sites rely on either temporary or permanent cookies to store your account information.

You may also simply want to periodically delete all your cookies and make all websites start over with the information they gather on you.

Rather than try and outline how all web browsers handle cookies, I’ll point you to the different web browser-maker’s sites to explain all cookie and security options: Apple’s Safari: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer: Firefox:

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