By Virginia Baldwin Hick

October 5, 1998

Do you toss your cookies? Um, please don't be offended. I was referring to your Net surfing practices, not your digestion.

Cookies are bits of identifying text that a Web site may attach to your hard drive. It's like going into a store and having a clerk pat you on the back, only to discover she's stuck a name tag there - perhaps with a note, "likes pink."

Cookies are used to serve - and sell - you as you move through sites on the Net. A site can identify you the next time you show up. If you've given any information in any form (to enter a sweepstakes, for instance) it may pop up banner ads to cater to what it believes are your tastes and interests.

A site cannot set cookies and get information that you don't give voluntarily. It can, however, combine what it knows about you from other sources with the tag it leaves in the cookie. Some companies sell the information you've given them. Others just use it to, in effect, say "hi" whenever you drop by.

Are cookies handy ways to increase commerce and personalize your surfing experience, or money-grubbing attempts to surround you with hard sell? It depends on your world view. Do you believe that, by and large, phone solicitors perform a handy service? Do you enter all the sweepstakes you get in the mail?

Many people consider cookies a threat to Internet privacy. They'd like to think our online information search is between us and our browser. Others think cookies are no more nefarious and somewhat less bothersome than, say, mailing lists sold by catalog companies.

What brings cookies to mind is a decision last week by a federal judge in Tennessee who dismissed a suit seeking the cookie files of city hall employees. The local gadfly of Cookeville, Tenn., Geoffrey Davidian, wanted to know if city employees were surfing inappropriate sites on taxpayers' money. He argued that cookies are like long-distance phone bills, are considered public records in Tennessee.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Higgins dismissed the suit, but left a legal question up to the state: Are the cookies public records? Jumping into this debate, I'm torn. I'm a journalist who believes in open public records. But I'm a citizen who already doesn't like the fact that direct-mail companies sell my name to lists according to my mail-order buying habits.

It seems to me that long-distance phone records should be open, because the city spends money on the calls. Looking at cookies and other records of Internet usage is more like going through someone's wastebasket.

And that's why I brought the subject up. At work especially, you should consider the tracks you make on the Internet to have the same quasi-public character as your wastebasket. If you sometimes shred personal scraps of paper before throwing them into the office trash, you might want to know how to fuzz your tracks online.

There are two places you should concentrate on: cookies and cache. To find out who is leaving cookie crumbs on your hard drive, you can adjust your browser to alert you when a site wants to attach a cookie. It can be eye-opening to discover just how often sites want to give you a hearty backslap with note attached.

With the alert, you can accept or reject each cookie as it comes up. Since I've been doing that, I've not had many sites be totally inoperable because I've tossed their cookies. If you find the alert annoying, you also can turn the cookies off completely with the same browser setting.

Here's how in Netscape: Under the Edit menu, choose Preferences. In that list, click on Advanced. A form should pop up asking you what to do about cookies.

Here's how in Internet Explorer: Under the View menu, choose Internet Options, select the Advanced tab and scroll down until you see choices about cookies.

But if you're worried about someone checking to see where you surfed, you ought to pay attention to cache as well. Every time you go online, your browser tells your hard drive where you've been, to make it easier to go backward and forward and speed up your connection. The information remains cached until the cache fills up, or until a preset time limit. Just logging off does not clear your cache. But it's easy to do.

In Netscape: Take the same trail as you did for cookies: Edit, Preferences, Advanced. Then find Cache under the Advanced menu. Clearing your disk wipes out the trail from your hard drive. Clearing your memory takes it out of RAM. Do both.

In Internet Explorer, you start down the cookie trail and then branch off: View, Internet Options and General tab. IE doesn't use the term cache. Look instead for settings for temporary Internet files.

The settings will allow you to clear the files with each use, but they're reset when you open an online trip, not when you close one. To erase your tracks just before logging off (or just after going to a site you'd rather not have recorded) choose Delete Files.

One last lace to toss your cookies: If you have Windows 95/98, use the Find command to look on your files with cookie in their names. You might be surprised who's been following you around, telling the world your favorite color.