Commentary

How Cookie-Gate Crumbles

By Solveig Singleton
July 11, 2000
People get upset about the darndest things. The most recent tempest in Leviathan’s teapot is the use of a rather commonplace Internet technology called “cookies” to track the viewing of ads on the drug czar’s web site. The White House chief of staff has demanded that Barry R. McCaffrey explain how the practice of monitoring traffic using cookies began. But this latest installment in the demonization of cookies is absurd. Here’s why.

The war on drugs has strained civil liberties to the breaking point. The police can seize your property without trial under forfeiture laws, and even if you are found innocent, you will have an awful time getting it back again. The war has brought us routine surveillance of ordinary people’s bank accounts, the expansion of wiretapping powers and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent criminals. Worst is the transformation of inner-city neighborhoods into de facto war zones, the inevitable result of Prohibition-style black markets.

All of this, apparently, is just fine with the press, the public and politicians on the Hill and in the White House. Yet they are shocked, simply shocked, to find the drug czar’s web site using cookies. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Central to understanding this is the idea that people can get used to anything. The human and societal cost of the war on drugs is staggering. But cookies? A lot of people don’t know what they are or how they work, and new and unknown is scary. Never mind that cookies, like binoculars or satellites, are pretty benign, although they can be used for evil purposes. Should we cower before cookies, like isolated tribesmen who believe the explorers’ camera will steal their souls?

What are cookies, and what do they do? Cookies are little data files that are saved to an Internet user’s computer. These files track purchases loaded into online shopping carts, record how many times a user has seen a certain banner advertisement and so on. They help web sites identify when a regular visitor has returned, so that the visitor need not re-enter his identification information every time. Cookies tell the server, “This visitor has been here before” or “This visitor has seen this ad three times already.”

Cookies were invented by Internet pioneer Lou Montulli in 1994, when he was working for the brand-new Netscape. Netscape was trying to help web sites become viable commercial enterprises. But the web sites were not very good at customer relations. In an ordinary store in the “real” world of malls and main street, the shopkeeper can eyeball shoppers coming in, identify regular customers, check out suspicious characters, get a feel for whether his visitors are locals or tourists, likely buyers or merely browsers and make sure that shoppers can find what they are looking for. Web sites had no mechanism for collecting this information; on the Internet, every visitor was an anonymous stranger. Without cookies or some other tracking technology, web sites are blind and deaf. So it should hardly come as a big shock that cookies are widely used across the Internet. They are simply a part of the way the Internet works.

If you don’t mind the inconvenience of a cookie-less world, it’s easy enough to disable cookies. If you are using Netscape Navigator, go to the taskbar and click on “Edit.” Select “Preferences,” go to “Advanced.” Next click on “Cookies” and select “Disabled,” or ask to be warned before your browser accepts a cookie. If you are using Internet Explorer, go to “Tools,” then “Internet Options” and select “Security.” Go to “Custom,” scroll down to “Cookies,” and again select “Disabled.”

The fact that many people have not yet heard of cookies does not mean that they are some kind of sinister surveillance, any more than is Caller ID. It simply means that the Internet is new and that many users, having come online for the first time in the last two or three years, are ignorant of its nuances. If you’re looking for serious threats to civil liberties, the war on drugs is a good object of your scrutiny. But cookies can’t batter your door down with automatic weaponry. They are just a technology that makes the Internet more convenient.

Solveig Singleton is director of information studies at the Cato Institute.