Despite Others' Claims, Tracking Cookies Fit My Spyware Definition
By WALTER S. MOSSBERG
Suppose you bought a TV set that included a component to track what
you watched, and then reported that data back to a company that used
or sold it for advertising purposes. Only nobody told you the tracking
technology was there or asked your permission to use it.
You would likely be outraged at this violation of privacy. Yet that
kind of Big Brother intrusion goes on every day on the Internet,
affecting millions of people. Many Web sites, even from respectable
companies, place a secret computer file called a "tracking cookie" on
your hard disk. This file records where you go on the Web on behalf of
Internet advertising companies that later use the information for
their own business purposes. In almost all cases, the user isn't
notified of the download of the tracking cookie, let alone asked for
permission to install it.
Luckily, the leading Windows antispyware programs can detect and
remove these tracking cookies. It is the best defense a user has
against this tactic.
Now, though, some of the companies that place these files on your hard
disk are complaining about that defense. Some are urging the
antispyware software companies to stop detecting and removing tracking
cookies. They assert that the secret placement of these tracking
mechanisms is a legitimate business practice, and that tracking
cookies aren't really spyware or aren't harmful.
Unfortunately for consumers, this twisted reasoning is having some
impact. In the most notable case, Microsoft disabled the detection and
removal of tracking cookies when it purchased an antispyware program
from a small company called Giant and turned it into Microsoft Windows
AntiSpyware. That is a big reason why I can't recommend the Microsoft
product, which still is in the test phase but is available for anyone
[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: And have you noticed how many sites
refuse to admit you at all if you refuse to accept their cookies?
On our web site http://telecom-digest.org until last year when the
site was greatly overhauled, I used cookies only for the purpose of
referring to the user by name and telling him how often he had been
there. _No other reason_. I finally quit it, when various users were
offended by it; not apparently because I called them by name, or
referenced how often they had been around, but because of all the
potential for misuse otherwise. And I did get 'legitimate' business
inquiries about the cookies. Companies wanted to by them, etc and get
more details, etc. But that just made me feel very uneasy and unethical.
That's the main reason I distribute NY Times and other newspapers on
this site (see td-extra) with no login nor registration requirements. I
just don't think it is anyone's business who reads what around here. PAT]