fancy some web cookies? (1996)

Coming away from the shopping centre with credit card slips and itemised receipts makes one think about all the data they must store about a professional-type of person. Maybe it’s vain to even think that anyone is interested, but if anyone should care, there lots of very useful fact here.
The Internet – hailed as tomorrow’s shopping centre, is a place where people use their software to look at its pages – the shop fronts that businesses everywhere are currently setting up. Here too is another great place to find out what people (at present mostly professionals) are interested in. The Internet is fast becoming a vast storehouse of market data that businesses will not want to ignore. (Roger Frost 1996)

While in the real world, on television, advertisers do their research and make a rough guess about who is watching. On the Internet, where people click their way around, they express their interests all the time. If the system knew all their moves, and fortunately it doesn’t, businesses could deliver a seriously well targeted sales message.

There are a few ways that the system might do this – some obvious but some clandestine. The most obvious is through ‘search engine’ pages where typing a word like ‘football’ produces a list of places to visit as well an assortment of advertisements. It’s a logical next step that one day, a sports retailer will want to pop up on the page – not just as one of thousands of entries about football, but way up front in a blazing banner across the screen.

Many sites on the Internet offer a logon screen and ask for the user to identify themselves. As many information services are free it’s reasonable to say thank-you and provide them with some details in return. In fact it provides slightly more than this, because with that ID, they can track movements within the site to see where they go. On the other hand, the service may simply be testing how easy it is to find something it has to offer.

It’s in the past few months, that people have become aware of ‘cookies’, the tool that transparently tracks who is who. Now when anyone visits a site on the Internet, the site may send the browser software a cookie – a small string of coded characters. The browser stores this on the disc and because the cookie is unintelligible it’s never clear what exactly is being stored.

Most usefully, the cookie might just be a users logon identification such that the next time they visit the site they can gain automatic access. In several reported cases, the cookie stored a code which told the site which adverts the user had already seen – so that quite reasonably, the site could throw them a different advert the next time they visited. And of course, if the site was smart enough to discover that they liked football, it might do the decent thing and perhaps offer them a tempting set of football attire!

The exciting thing about this ‘cookie’ technology, is that in future people logging onto the Internet can expect to automatically receive information about interests they expressed in the past: ask about shares today, and tomorrow shares come along on their own. Ask about American football today, and tomorrow when they say football, it will know they don’t mean soccer.

But the way this operates does hit the paranoia centre: although today’s browser software can alert the user if a site wants to store a ‘cookie’, what is spooky is that the browser will happily supply its cookie information to the site without asking anyone. More worrying is that if the browser is configured to send electronic mail, it will just as happily deliver the electronic mail address, which as we know, identifies a user precisely. Today’s tip is that if people want to stay anonymous, or look after what might be called their ‘digital health’, they should check that the browser doesn’t know their email address.

Time will tell how exaggerated that worry actually is: at worst people will probably just get more junk mail. Meanwhile the positive side is already taking shape as users of Microsoft’s MSN service, can logon to find a home page which can be personalised and customised to ones interests. Maybe one year, it will be smart enough to choose, gift wrap and deliver all those Christmas presents.

For details about privacy and democracy issues visit: www.cdt.org