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  The Cookie Protocol was originally designed for consumer convenience and not to be malicious, the cookie is just another tool on the web, but it is the way in which some sites implement that tool that can cause problems, mainly privacy problems.

But, a coalition of privacy advocates is setting out to change that protocol. A new proposal being put forward to the IETF, as well as the heads of Microsoft and Netscape corporations'. If enforced, it would limit the persistence of cookies and give the user a wider choice of which cookies to allow and from where. If the new specification is implemented as a standard, it will be integrated into all mainstream browsers in time. This would give people wider options in their standard browser, rather than having to purchase additional software.

The IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) is a non-profit organisation with thousands of members, and currently holds a lot influence on decisions deciding the future of the web, set up October 1996.

Another part of the proposal, would require browsers to at least warn before accepting cookies by default, so that cookies are less transparent to new users, and users currently unaware of cookies. "We want the defaults set in such a way that no one can send you a cookie without you knowing it," said Marc Rotenberg, director of EPIC one of the organisations that supports the new proposal.

Current Organisations backing the new proposal are: Center for Media Education, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, the Consumer Project on Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

The most controversial issue of the proposal is the ability to limit or altogether stop cookie requests from third party servers. This is the one feature which additional client software cannot stop. This would throw the future of targeted marketing firms into jeopardy. Many sites now use these companies or use banners from third party servers for their advertising. On a site that obtains its advertisements from a third party server, there would be a request on the page to the other server. Because a cookie can be placed on any object, when the site requests the banner from the other site, it would then read or set a cookie.

The request for the banner then sets a cookie, then returns an advertising image. The cookie with the image request could then record what adverts had been displayed to the user and which banners they had clicked on. If the client went to another site which obtained its adverts from the same server, when that page requested the banner from the third party server it would read the same cookie then it would be able to display adverts which have been customised from the data on the cookie, so they would not see the same adverts again (unless a company paid for it to be displayed again), another variable would be set to the cookie indicating that they have visited that site, all this information gathered can be used to build up a detailed profile of the users likes, dislikes and where they go, so they target advertisement even more accurately at the user. Over a long period of time this would become very accurate. To some people having advertisements that are to their liking are not that bad. Indeed I would rather be downloading a banner that may interest me, rather than an advertisement of no relevance to me at all.

If you think of this information being gathered about you in a central place, it becomes a daunting thought. Even though these targeted marketing companies cannot use a cookie to obtain personal information from your computer like your name or e-mail address, they could however aggregate information you revealed to disparate sites. For instance, if you went to a site with lax privacy standards and decided to submit your name and e-mail address, this information may be passed on and then coupled with a database of your likes, dislikes and advertising statistics. Some contend this does not constitute an invasion of privacy, however the widespread and automated nature of this technology enables the collection of data without people’s knowledge, this certainly takes away the perceived anonymity of the web.

Some people may think this is an invasion of privacy, and others do not, but this proposal will hopefully have the outcome of giving people a choice.

Examples of these so called 'targeted marketing' companies are : Doubleclick, Focalink, Globaltrack, ADSmart, all of these companies use cookies to target advertisements at you, at their enabled sites. If the proposal goes through, and the cookie protocol amended to disallow cookies from third party servers, the future of these targeted marketing companies would be very dark indeed. Currently, the cookies used in targeted marketing are set automatically and can only follow an number of variables, users appear anonymous to these companies unless they voluntarily surrender personal information.

Hopefully the proposal will result in giving you more choice and control over your privacy, because these technologies affect you, people should have the choice of controlling them.

The Persistent Cookie protocol was first developed by Netscape to maintain state in the stateless environment of HTTP. It has turned out to have many uses, good and bad, and many far from its original intent in the first place. The subject of cookies and other invasive technologies has touched on a very controversial issue of privacy, which we have temporally lost on the net. Since they were first introduced a few years ago, the protocol has changed before, in the past any site could view all the cookies in the jar, but this was coupled with more serious and concerning problems in Java. The new proposal will take a lot of time to implement, a lot of hard decisions have to be settled before the resulting standard is set. It has taken until Internet Explorer 6 before Microsoft have taken time to implement P3P. Some of those decisions may effect the futures of a lot of marketing companies, which for now are very secure. - Software to keep your data secure


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