Who Put the Cookies in Your Computer?

Cookies. They're not just in your cookie jar anymore. Are the cookies that reside in your computer necessary? Sometimes yes.

When connected to the Internet you use, let’s say, Internet Explorer to see a web page. Behind the scene your computer accesses a web server computer somewhere else in the world where the web page resides. The web server downloads the web page to your computer and Internet Explorer displays it to you in a viewable format. The web server, now that it has given you what you requested, goes off to do something else. It closes the connection to your computer—then forgets who you are. If you now click on a link on the web page you downloaded that also resides on the same web server, it will dutifully download it to you. However, it does not remember who you are. From its point of view, every single request to do something it receives is a unique request from a different computer.

This system worked well for the webs envisioned use: to be a vast electronic library. It was designed to support reading text. Since that time images, videos, sounds and commerce were all improvised to work on this underlying simple structure.

So now let’s take another example. I want to buy a book from Barnes & Noble online with a credit card. I enter my personal information on a web page. Then I am sent to a new web page to enter my credit card number. Since the web server does not know I am the same person, how can it relate my personal information to the credit card information? The answer is a cookie.

How does it work? The web server from Barnes & Noble in our example has to create a small text file on my computer when I begin browsing the site. This text file can only be referenced by the Barnes & Noble web server. It contains a simple unique number that identifies me. So when I go to buy the book the web server tries to read this cookie to identify me. It does the same thing on the credit card page. Thus it knows I am truly me throughout the buying process and can relate the personal information to the credit card number. The next time I return to Barnes & Noble to buy something up pops all my information—since the computer now knows who I am. The cookie number becomes the equivalent of my social security number, driver’s license number, etc.—a means of identification. For those web sites where you actually enter a username and password, these would then be contained in the cookie, the password being encrypted hopefully. Cookies can also contain preferences you have chosen on customizable web sites.

Cookies give a Web site developer helpful clues about who's visiting his site. This can help him determine what appeals to his audience. With the proper cookie scheme, he can tell which demographic group goes where on his site, and how many people are interested in a particular product or service. He can even use cookies to tell whether a particular column or advertisement is attracting enough attention to keep it around. For the maintainer of a web site, this information can be invaluable.

So why be afraid of the cookie monster? Cookies can be set to expire (be deleted) when you exit a web page or remain on your computer far into the future. Various advertising companies abuse this feature. Cookies on your computer can be created and read whenever a web server downloads any object to it. This includes banner advertising or any graphic advertisers may place on a page. Every time you visit a page with an advertising graphic from the same agency the graphic effectively asks, "Have I seen this person before?" If the answer is "Yes" (a cookie exists on your computer from them), then a notation is made in your profile on the advertiser’s computer system. In a short time the advertising agency can acquire quite a bit of knowledge about your surfing habits.

Why do advertising agencies do this? Because by knowing what you like to look at they can tailor advertising to you. Thus, you are more likely to buy something from them. The largest advertising agency on the Internet, Doubleclick, I can almost guarantee has a cookie on your computer. On Internet Explorer go to Tools>Internet Options>Settings>View Files (AOL users can select on their screen Settings>Preferences>Internet Properties>Settings>View Files). You should see a cookie called doubleclick.net. You can find out when it expires, was last modified, and last accessed.

So how concerned should you be about cookies? Well, that depends on how bothered you are by advertising agencies tracking your surfing habits. With the above technique you can look at the cookies on your computer and delete those you don’t recognize like doubleclick.net. Want to get rid of all of them? On Internet Explorer go to Tools>Internet Options>Delete Cookies (On AOL Settings>Preferences>Internet Properties>Delete Cookies). Deleting all cookies may affect preferences you have set up at certain web sites. Of course, you can always set them up again.

Although there are programs for dealing with cookies, newer versions of Internet Explorer have control capabilities as well. Select Tools>Internet Options and then the Privacy Tab (On AOL Settings>Preferences>Internet Properties and then the Privacy Tab). Move the slider control up or down to changing the restrictions on cookie usage. You can also control individual web sites under the Edit button. Choose to always allow or block cookies from a specific site. I just entered doubleclick.net into the always block category. The Advanced option allows you to customize cookies handling. To learn more about cookies, on Internet Explorer select Help>Contents and Index>type "cookies".

I don’t know whether computer cookies got their name from real cookies, Chinese fortune cookies, etc. Perhaps one of my readers knows the origin of this name. I do know that I prefer having the real ones, with the double cream centers!

Monthly Web Pics

This month I would like to concentrate on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

Always the place to begin is the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s discussion beginning here scborromeo.org/ccc/p2s2c2a4.htm.

Pope John Paul II has much to say on this topic in his Apostolic Exhortation "Reconciliatio et Paenitentia" that came out in 1984 found at vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/.

Catholic Answers has a couple of interesting tracts related to this Sacrament: "Confession" according the Fathers of the Church and "Forgiveness of Sins" at catholic.com/library/sacraments.asp

St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae looks at Penance in detail. See the Tertia Pars & Supplementum Tertia Partis links at newadvent.org/summa/.

The Church of Our Saviour in New York City has an article on their website entitled "How to Make a Good Confession" which you might find useful at oursaviournyc.org/How_To_Make_A_Good_Confession.htm.

The National Catholic Register has an excellent guide to confession and examinations of conscience for adults and children at ncregister.com.

For more links on this topic see my Reconcilation category in my online directory at monksofadoration.org/reconcil.html.

Brother John Raymond welcomes
e-mail at john@aplusconsultingnow.com.

He is author of Catholics on the Internet: 2000-2001,
Webmaster of www.monkofadoration.org