The Cookie Jar (a.k.a. Your Computer)

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Not so long ago, I thought I would take a look at the cookies I had amassed over the last few months. These days, as just about everyone knows, cookies small files of code that one computer sends to another are being used as ID tags to monitor what people do on the Web. I found my cookies with a nifty search program called Retrieve-It, which I got at a California computer store; it has a "peek" feature that converts the code to readable English. I had about 30 cookies, including some from Amazon, and DoubleClick, an online ad agency, was fourth on the list.

The company has been in the hot seat lately for its intent to monitor what you do online. It didn't take Net ad agencies long to realize that by tracking a person through his cookie's ID number, they could gradually assemble a profile of his interests, even if they didn't know his name and address. Last November, DoubleClick went further by buying Abacus Direct, a company that profiles 88 million households that use snail mail to buy merchandise from catalogs. The merger promised a wholesale linkup of Abacus's addresses and phone numbers with the ID numbers on Internet cookies once you've been tagged with a cookie a lot of other people are going to be aware of who you are and where you've been. In the furor that followed, DoubleClick put its strategy on hold pending a review by the Federal Trade Commission and several states.