Your web browser is keeping notes about you. Don't fret, it's not as bad as it sounds. After all, how can something with an innocuous name like "cookies" be bad?
A cookie is simply a note to itself that a web site leaves on your computer's hard drive. You know how your applications -- Microsoft Word, Netscape, and other programs that you use -- create preferences files? Well, cookies are preferences files for Web sites.
Any information that you give to a site can be stored in a cookie, so that next time you visit that site (later that day or even months in the future) the site can read its cookie and remember your preferences. For instance, if you tell the site that you prefer to see the "frames" version of web pages and that you use Windows NT, the site can stash that data in a cookie. The next time around, it will use frames and tell you about new Windows NT software. Or you might click your way to the classical area of an online music store: using cookies, the store duly notes your penchant for Pachelbel, and on your next visit the site highlights classical releases. Unless you have set your browser to warn you when cookies are added, you probably won't even realize the process has occurred.
Cookies can only store information that you give to the web site. A site can't get your e-mail address, for example, unless you give it to them.
So, cookies are mostly harmless. But some folks don't like them -- they see cookies as a potential invasion of privacy. Give your credit card number to a web site, and there's no reason the site can't keep your card info in a cookie to speed your next order. But privacy advocates wonder if Web sites can snoop on cookies left by other sites. (After all, you don't want www.shyster.com to steal credit card info that was stored by another web site.) With up-to-date web browsers, this isn't possible.
By the way, cookies don't stay around, clogging your hard drive forever. They can be set by a web site to expire after a certain date.
In Netscape Navigator and Communicator 4.0, you can control how the browser handles cookies. Pick Preferences from the Edit menu, then click on Advanced. You can accept all cookies (the default), accept only cookies that get sent back to the site you're visiting (a more secure alternative if you're worried about advertising sites tracking you,) or don't accept cookies at all (for militant anti-cookie surfers). You can also tell the browser to warn you every time a site places a cookie on your computer. I find this rather tedious -- when the cookie warning dialog box pops up, it interrupts the flow of using the web.
Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 does not include the option to disable cookies entirely, but there is the option to warn you before a cookie is set. You can activate this by choosing Options from the View menu, choosing Advanced and unchecking the "don't warn before accepting cookies" box.
More info is available at Andy's Cookie Notes (http://www.illuminatus.com/cookie.fcgi). There you'll find additional links, a very good description of how cookies work, and info on using cookies on your own web site if you are so inclined.
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Cookie Central: http://www.cookiecentral.com
Andy's Cookie Notes: http://www.illuminatus.com/cookie.fcgi