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Post Column: Internet cookies less tasty than they sound

The cookies are watching you.

When you get on the computer, the cookies are staring at you. Any time. Every time. All the time.

In a country that values privacy above all else, whose Bill of Rights protects the right to privacy in four different amendments and whose people constantly eye the government suspiciously for signs of invasive spying, we are already being watched by Big Brother. And Big Brother has come in the form of thousands and thousands of evil, wide-eyed cookies.

According to the omniscient god Wikipedia, the HTTP cookie is “data stored on a user’s computer that assists in automated access to websites.”

The procedure works thusly: Every time a user accesses the Internet through a browser and visits a webpage, the website gives your computer a small text file called a “cookie.” The cookie remembers information such as your computer ID at that website or your username and password.

Cookies were created with an originally benign purpose, which was that users visiting particular websites could get personalized website responses. For example, if I were to visit Amazon.com, the Amazon cookie would know it was me if I visited the website again.

Through the cookie, the website would be able to tell me what usernames I commonly use. This is an example of good cookie function: The Amazon cookie has just saved me from typing the dozen or so keystrokes that would otherwise dangerously deplete my calorie supply.

Almost every website you visit will give your computer its own special cookie.

Cookies, in themselves, were designed to be rather harmless.

But then, advertisers turned cookies bad.

Not only are current cookies used to just store usernames and computer IDs, but they can also store information such as your name, your address, your phone number, your location and your passwords. Particularly alarming is the fact that cookies can memorize your “browser state” and record the history of all the sites you have visited.

This information, in turn, can be passed on to the website’s advertisers, who show you particular advertisements based on a complicated computer analysis of your “interests,” calculated from which websites the cookies say you have visited.

These privacy-invading cookies, known as tracking cookies, subsequently link to your private accounts, such as your Gmail or your Facebook, and release targeted ads to those accounts.

To make matters worse, cookies are basically unreliable, easily captured messengers.  Hackers can easily grab cookie data as cookies travel between your browser and websites on the Internet highway. Before you know it, your personal information has been taken by some stranger.

Cookies also read your emails and record what things you “like” on Facebook, and inform advertisers of that as well.

This can lead to identity crises. As a hypothetical example, suppose you are doing a research project for a biology class, and you are reading through websites about halitosis while logged into Gmail.  Before you know it, the cookies from those websites have already informed Gmail you were reading about halitosis, and your Gmail ad feeds suddenly and inexplicably fill with ads for halitosis ointments, creams and cure-alls.

And if your colleagues see the plethora of ads dealing with halitosis, they could get the wrong impression.

Through all of these forms of cookie data, companies create “online profiles” of you, replete with all kinds of sensitive information.

If you dislike the ideas of cookies, then you do have the option of turning off cookies. But websites such as Gmail stop working without cookies. Why? Because they want to make money.

The bottom line: If you want to use the Internet, be prepared to have your privacy violated.

And be prepared for the cookies. They’re watching you.

Kevin Hwang is a senior at Athens High School who is taking classes at Ohio University and a columnist for The Post. Email him at kh319910@ohiou.edu.

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