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Cookies and Internet Privacy
Student José Amador likes to use his email account at yahoo.com. “I find paper so obsolete,” he says. Amador is not worried about the privacy of this account. Perhaps he and the many other people that use yahoo email should be concerned, however. All users of Yahoo mail are having their actions tracked.
Yahoo monitors the actions of users, in part, by using “cookies.” Cookies are small files that record visits to web pages. When you open up a cookie dispensing web page, the web server sends one or more of these files to your browser. The cookies will usually contain a number that is unique to that browser. Then the next time that this browser opens that particular page, the web site will both send a new cookie and retrieve the old one. This makes it possible, for sites to compile lists of how often visitors go to a particular page as well as when they visit it.
By themselves, cookies cannot reveal the identity of the user. All these files can do is store information about domain names and the rough location of the visitor. That said, if the site requires registration and a sign in -as is the case with yahoo email, for example- then site administrators can combine the two streams of data with ease. Cookies also cannot send viruses. They are only text files thus preventing that danger. Readers who want to view the cookies stored on their browser should search for a file called on cookies.txt on PCs or a file called MagicCookie on Macs.
The first browser that could handle cookies was Netscape Navigator 1.0. Cookies have become commonplace on the web since that browser first came out in 1995. By one account, 26 of the top 100 web sites utilize these files. Sites that use cookies include AltaVista, all pages on the GeoCities domain, and the web version of the New York Times. The New York Times is a lot like Yahoo mail in that the acceptance of cookies is required. Most sites, however, do not require browsers to accept cookies.