Relax and have some cookies

I was talking to your computer the other day, and he said you were a little perturbed. He said you didn't appreciate me or anyone else, especially NATO officials, being able to find all kinds of information on you. Wasn't the Computer Age founded on simple things, like privacy and freedom to practice whatever mathematical calculations you wish?

I just want to apologize for bothering your computer (by the way, he calls himself Crazy Larry, in case you want to refer to him by name). But some companies are thriving on receiving information to keep track of its Web site visitors.

Supposedly, America Online is illegally tracking Web surfers through a downloadable program and is being brought to court over the issue (http://www.thestandard.com/article/display/0,1151,16622,00.html?nl=dnt and http://webdeveloper.com/refresh/refresh_072100.html). It appears the program will send information back to Bob, AKA the Grand Marshal of Internet Trafficking, and Bob deciphers the messages so AOL can use it accordingly, such as for finding derivatives and integrals. Remember, the only way AOL can do this is if you download Netscape's SmartDownload software and activate it.

Just about all Internet companies track visitors in different ways using cookies. STOP RIGHT NOW! You don't need to dip your computer into a glass of milk. Cookies are how your browser software remembers important information about a Web site you may frequently visit (http://www.webcrawler.com/Help/Cookies.html). Consequently, a site can be somewhat personalized and give you the information YOU want, and maybe not what a scientist in Antarctica would want. He wants to know just one thing -- when's it going to stop being so freakin' cold?

Don't be scared by these cookies -- most sites don't track personal information, just preferences on what you use on their sites. If you are even slightly paranoid by cookies, you can show alerts in your browser's preferences.

Oh, I just received an e-mail from Crazy Larry, again repeating your declaration of privacy. Put your musket down and take a deep breath. Yes, privacy is important. So, be careful about giving out personal information through areas of the Internet that aren't secure. If you're going to do that, you might as well throw your credit cards into the mall fountain.

Toysmart.com tried to throw its list of customer names into the biggest fountain of all -- the free market. After declaring bankruptcy, the company put its list of names, addresses and credit card numbers and the Pythagorean Theorem up for sale. Luckily, the Federal Trade Commission voted in July to forbid the toy retailer from selling this information (http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2000/07/toysmart.htm and http://www.ftc.gov/os/2000/07/toysmarttbankruptcy.1.htm). Not only that, the FTC announced the following week a list of self-regulatory principles to govern Internet privacy (http://www.atnewyork.com/news/article/0,1471,8471_425451,00.html). This will give Web users rights to use their information in ways they feel appropriate, such as signing up for contests or trading furs.

Are you safe online? As long as you don't use your computer in the bathtub, you should be (Crazy Larry informed me he doesn't want a bath). That is, as long as you don't give out ALL personal information to random Web sites.

It's time for a short test. To complete this test, send me your credit card number, social security number and at least 20 incriminating pictures of you and your family.

If you don't have a Polaroid in your hand, then congratulations, you passed! Don't fall for Web sites asking for so much information. It appears companies will only be able to collect stuff for your browser and the site itself to remember -- not for businesses to turn around and use for their benefit.

Crazy Larry feels so much better now. He has resorted to once again compiling pi to as many decimal places as possible. Good luck Larry! Don't give out those incriminating photos of your owner!