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Cookies: To toss or not to toss, that is the question?

Cookies are small text files placed on your hard drive that permit Web sites to store information about your visit. In most instances, this information is used to personalize subsequent visits to the Web site or to remember any personal settings or customization available to you on the site. Most cookies are harmless, particularly when received from Web sites of impeccable repute such as But in order to make an informed decision whether to accept or reject cookies, it’s important to understand what they are and perhaps more importantly, what they can and cannot do.

First, a piece of utterly worthless information -- something has become Mr. Modem’s journalistic hallmark: The name “cookie” derives from absolutely nothing. It was a whimsical name selected because it sounds kind of cute, warm and fuzzy. But names, of course, can be deceiving. Rumor has it Charles Manson’s nickname was “Muffin.”

Cookies first appeared on the Internet scene approximately four years ago. While cookies do have many legitimate uses, some people mistakenly believe that cookies are possessed of unlimited powers. The general nature of these unfounded fears goes something like this: Once a cookie is inside a computer, it’s only a matter of time before it will launch digital probes to explore the deep, dark recesses of one’s vegetable bin or underwear drawer. While cookies won't do either, they are perceived by some to violate two nearly universal assumptions held by most computer users:

1) That exploring the World Wide Web is an entirely confidential and anonymous experience that leaves no record of itself, and

2) That users' hard drives are their castles and shouldn't be tampered with -- without an owner's explicit knowledge and approval.

Some discretion is in order when deciding whether to accept a cookie or not. My mother always told me never to accept cookies from strangers, and that’s still good advice. If I’m surfing the Web and I visit Big Louie's Communicable Diseases Database and Digital Dating Service, I’m going to decline a cookie invitation. I don’t know Big Louie from a hole in the ozone layer, so I don’t want him or his cookie festering in my computer, thankyouverymuch. Besides, what would my neighbors think? On the other hand, if I visit a Web site I know and trust, I always accept any cookie offered.

The original purpose for using cookies was to enable Web sites to personalize their content offerings to returning visitors by remembering their name or personal preferences based on their movements and actions during a previous visit.

Off-line, this would be the equivalent of going to a shopping mall and having your travels within the mall noted. The theory would be that the next time you cruised the mall you might be advised of special sales or other semi-interesting items that may have been added within stores or departments since your last visit.

Personally, I like to be left alone when I shop, so I don’t necessarily want people noting my mall movements. Besides, I have been known to cast a furtive glance into the window of Victoria’s Secret and that could cause a host of problems with Mrs. Modem if I suddenly started receiving Christmas cards from Victoria and the girls.

Enjoying this article? Then why not subscribe to Mr. Modem's Weekly Newsletter ( today! Computer tips, tricks, virus alerts, hoax information, plus prompt, personal responses to your computer questions!

What Can You Do About Ccookies?

If you want to know when a site is about to drop a cookie on you, you can instruct your browser to alert you to that fact. If you’re using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 4.x, go to the View menu and choose Internet Options. Click on the Advanced tab and scroll down to Security. Under Cookies, select either Disable All Cookie Use or Prompt Before Accepting Cookies.

If you’re using Internet Explorer 5.x (or higher), click Tools, then Internet Options and then the Security tab. Select the “Internet” zone, then using the little slidey thing (sorry for the technical terminology), adjust the level of security by reading the descriptions that accompany each level. High Security disables all cookies; Medium Security will prompt you before accepting “potentially unsafe content,” including cookies.

Internet Explorer stores cookies in the C:\Windows\Cookies folder. If you’re getting anxious about the size of your cookie collection, you can always delete the contents of this folder. You will be prompted for passwords from sites that previously remembered your password and you will be greeted as “Visitor” instead of by name at other sites, but in short order you’ll add new cookies to the file and be well on your way to cookieville once again.

In Netscape Navigator 4.0 and higher, select Preferences from the Edit menu, then choose Advanced. Choose either Disable Cookies or Warn Me Before Accepting a Cookie.

Netscape’s cookies reside in C:\Program Files\Netscape\Users\Yourname, and in the cookies.txt file. If you delete cookies.txt, it will regenerate itself the next time you encounter a cookie intending to take up residence on your hard drive.

Windows XP allows you to control how you want to handle cookies, as well. Because Internet Explorer is integrated with XP, with the exception of how you get to the cookie-control area, these instructions are almost identical to what we just covered for Internet Explorer above:

Click Start > Control Panel > Network And Internet Connections > Internet Options.

Click the Privacy tab, then use the slider bar to modify your cookie settings.

The lowest level is Accept All Cookies, while the highest is Block All Cookies, with low, medium, medium-high, and high settings in between. An explanation of each setting appears as you move the slider. You can also block cookies from specific sites or allow all cookies from specific sites using the Advanced button at the bottom of the window.

Viewing Cookies in Windows XP

In XP, cookies start with "cookie:" (without the quotes) so you can easily recognize cookie files. Using Internet Explorer, click Tools > Internet Options > Settings > View Files. The content of your Temporary Internet Cache will display. Click the Name column header to sort the files alphabetically and you'll see the "cookie:" names. A cookie will appear something like this:

Name-brand cookies (such as the Microsoft cookie in the example above) are generally fine to leave alone. If you visit a particular site frequently and it remembers your name and greets you when you arrive, there's really no need to delete that cookie. Any cookies you don't recognize, though, you can easily delete by right-clicking its icon and selecting "Delete" from the menu presented. The worst that happens when you delete cookies is you may have to log in again to some sites by typing in your username and password that the cookie previously remembered for you.

If you're in a tizzy over cookies, you might consider a cookie-management program such as the Cookie Crusher or Kookaburra Software's Cookie Pal.

All things considered, cookies are just a normal part of any Internet surfer’s diet and present no cause for alarm. Better still, they’re low in fat, high in cyber.

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