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Be a Savvy Web Surfer: A Consumer Online

By Harvey S. Jacobs, Esq.
Posted Tuesday, September 7, 2004

How can I check my privacy settings?
To access these settings on the Internet Explorer browser, all you need to do is: (1) right click on the Web browser icon; (2) left click on Properties; (3) left click on Custom Level; (4) scroll down to the Cookies settings. You then have three options: Disable, Enable, or Prompt.

In Netscape Navigator, you need to: (1) click on Edit; (2) click on Preferences; and (3) click on the category Advanced. You will see four options: Accept All, Accept with limitations, Disable and Warn Me.

What are “cookies” anyway?
Cookies are small computer files that are placed on your computer when you visit a Web site, or click a banner ad or even when your mouse rolls or hovers over a certain portion of a Web site. They are relatively small in size and typically do not have any material effect on your computer’s performance, but for heavy Internet users they can take up valuable hard drive space.

These small files do however contain large consequences. They are designed to collect information about you, and your surfing habits. Some information is as basic as, have you been to the site before, to the very complex “big brother” variety of cookie which can collect information on what page you came from, what page you left for, how much time you spent on each section of each page. There are even reported cookies that attach themselves to your browser and follow you from page to page and report your entire Web journey back to a central data collection point.

Are ALL cookies bad?
Not at all. Many cookies store information that are quite useful to you such as your name, log in name and or password, and other information that you otherwise would have to repeatedly type in to access a given Web site. These useful little cookies can save you enormous amounts of time.

Many surfers welcome the use of cookies to store their preferences on certain sites, such as travel reservation sites. For example, you can store your travel profile in a cookie so that when you go to make an airline or hotel reservation, the site will automatically know what your first choice of airline or hotel chain is, whether you want smoking or non-smoking accommodations, and whether you prefer window or aisle. Sites such as have elevated the cookie to a “high art form” such that when you login it remembers your prior purchases, where you have browsed, the type of books you like and assembles a recommended reading list for your inspection every time you log on.

Then what’s so bad about cookies?
Cookies can be used to piece together many bits of unrelated information which, when assembled, can generate an all-too-personal profile of your online activities. Companies such as Double-Click amass vast amounts of market data on your every move on the Web and sell that assembled data to marketing managers anxious to sell you just the right product, at just the right time, at just the right price.

The real privacy problems arise when this data is then “mined,” which means associated with other databases which you never thought would be used to assemble your online profile. For example, a health insurance company could buy the e-mail addresses and potentially even the names and addresses of all people who have accessed Web sites dealing with breast cancer. The insurance company could then cross check those e-mail addresses against their existing policy holders to determine which of their covered beneficiaries has accessed such information on the Internet. That list could potentially be further “mined” to see if any of those policy holders who checked breast cancer Web sites also checked into cigarette sites or even if they purchased cigarettes online. With this association of seemingly harmless bits of information, you can see that an insurance company could assemble and use that information at policy renewal times to potentially deny medical coverage or to greatly increase the cost of health insurance based on its perceptions gathered from Web and other data of the high risk tendencies of its policy holders.

This kind of situation could also have a negative impact if data is mined by an employer or potential employer, landlord or credit card company.

This type of nightmare scenario may have recently been addressed in federal legislation which now places certain nominal limits on the use and sharing of health and financial information contained in your insurance company and other financial institutions’ databases. Many of you have been receiving unintelligible little pieces of fine print forms in your monthly statements asking you if you wish to opt out or opt in. These forms cannot be ignored. If you wish to protect your privacy you must read them, attempt to understand them and mail them back to your companies. If you fail to do so the default is that these companies CAN SHARE your personal financial information.

What can the average Web surfer do?

Understand what cookies are
Make sure your browser’s security settings are at your desired risk level
Purge-delete your cookies from time to time
AVOID providing personal information in the first place. If you know you may be surfing on dubious sites, create a new screen name and e-mail address and use that for those surfing sessions, then delete that screen name and e-mail address.
Never reply to spam (unsolicited sales pitches by e-mail)
Never use the REMOVE ME features that spammers offer – they only serve to verify to the spammer that they are reaching a viable e-mail address and you will be rewarded with ten times more spam mail (try it sometime with a dummy e-mail account and see all the spam that follows)
Unless absolutely necessary, never provide truthful personal information in online surveys or forms (respondents claiming to have high net worth, or high disposable income are more likely to receive more and more offers and will be more attractive to spammers)
MOST important: be vigilant!
There are many benefits of Web surfing and enormous amounts of valuable information online, but you must be constantly aware that you are NOT alone out there in cyberspace.

© 2001 by Harvey S. Jacobs, Esq.

Article by Isaac Ferreira, visit ( for related articles.

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