A Taste of Cookies

Web sites use cookies to identify returning visitors. Unless the user provides additional information, however, a Web site's staff can't determine a user's actual identity; in other words, a cookie alone can't determine whether user No. 4259867 is actually John Doe.

Still, many privacy advocates dislike cookies in general and believe that when used in combination with tracking pixels -- called "Web bugs" by some critics -- they give site operators too much information about individuals' surfing habits.

But from the Web site's perspective, cookies may not be as useful as they seem. Some users set their browsers to block cookies, which means cookies can't be relied on as the sole way to measure unique users, notes George Ivie, executive director of Media Rating Council Inc., a New York-based trade organization seeking to develop and enforce audience-measurement standards. In addition, someone who surfs a site both at home and at work will count as two separate visitors because there's a different identifying cookie on each computer. In fact, someone who surfs a site on the same system using two different browsers -- Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, for example -- will likely count twice, unless he has provided other information to the sites, such as a single e-mail address.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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