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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Locking up the cookie jar

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

When the weather is cold and gray and dreary, I like to daydream about exotic, warm getaways. I visit travel sites online and plot my "perfect" trip.

I can curl up on my couch and look at all types of vacation destinations.

Similarly, when my son was looking at colleges, we paid virtual visits to many schools, using the internet.

The internet allows us to do so much, without leaving our homes. However, it comes with so many dangers.

I visit a site touting tropical vacations.

The next day my email is filled with offers from tourist destinations.

Private college browsing leads to emails explaining how various companies can help us find scholarships.

While a single person or company doesn't know everything about me, I feel at times like way too many know way too much about my likes, dislikes, habits and hobbies.

Is privacy a casualty of the internet age?

It is disconcerting to find out that even offline activities somehow find their way back into your inbox.

Buy a house? Your credit report likely had activity, which triggers a slew of emails.

In many cases you can blame cookies for the slew of email offers.

No, not those cookies.

When you visit different websites, many of the sites deposit data about your visit, called "cookies," on your hard drive. Cookies are pieces of information sent by a Web server to a user's browser. Cookies may include information such as login or registration identification, user preferences, online "shopping cart" information, and so on.

That information is saved and used for purposes good and bad. Your computer browser saves that cookie and, when you return to the website, it could customize the display it sends to you. Legitimate websites use cookies to make special offers to returning users and to track the results of their advertising. These cookies are called first-party cookies.

However, there are some cookies, called third-party cookies, that communicate data about you to an advertising clearinghouse, which in turn shares that data with other online marketers.

You can lock up your cookie jar online. Check your Tools bar on your browser, and look for a setting like "options" or "privacy." From there you may be able to delete cookies or block them. Keep your browser up to date as well. Old software can be vulnerable to new attack malware, which can intercept your personal information.

Some browsers now feature Do Not Track capabilities. Do Not Track is a tool that allows you to express your preference not to be tracked across the web. Turning on Do Not Track through your web browser sends a signal to every website you visit that you don't want to be tracked. Companies then know your preference. If they have committed to respect your preference, they are legally required to do so. Some browsers already support Do Not Track. If you want to use Do Not Track, check to see if the browser you use offers it -- or use a browser that does.

There are many other tools out there to protect you online. It's important to be aware and knowledgeable of the dangers. I've learned to think of the internet as another world, and one that's not always safe. Just as I pay extra attention when visiting a locale I don't know very well, I now do the same online.

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Paula Buenger