FROM THE TUSTIN NEWS, THURSDAY, APRIL 6, 2000


THE DOC IS IN...

Anybody want a 'cookie?'

When I visit the Amazon.com web page one of the first things I see is "Welcome back, Art, we have recommendations for you in books, music and video."

Deep in my heart I know this message means that my privacy has been violated, but really do I mind? By identifying me, my shopping experience is going to be made easier. When I go to check out, Amazon is going to ask me if I want the items sent to my home address and whether I want to use the credit card number they have on file.

How did they know it was me visiting their web site? What information do they have on file about me? Do they share this information with others?

In this day of electronic commerce the matter of personal privacy is causing great concern. Some of this concern is real. Some is blown out of proportion. Let's examine the Amazon.com example to try to understand the phenomenon.

When I first visited Amazon.com, they had no idea who I was. That is how the Internet works. However, when I make my first purchase, I supply them with some personal information. They take some of this information and leave it on my computer in the form of a "cookie."

This "cookie" stays on my computer. The next time I visit their web site they "read" this "cookie" which may have nothing more in it than an identifying number. But this is enough for them to go to their "big computer" and look me up. "Welcome back, Art, ..."

Could I have stopped this process? Yes. I could have set my Internet browser software on my computer to refuse "cookies". But if I did, no more easy shopping experience at Amazon.com. I would have to reenter all my personal information each time I made a purchase.

Many commercial web sites leave a "cookie" on our computers. Almost all are innocuous and are there to make our visits easier. And technically, a "cookie" left by one web site cannot be used by another site. They pretty much are safe. I accept almost all "cookies" on my computer.

But let's continue with my Amazon.com visit. Their "big computer" has a record of all my shopping on their site, my home or shipping address, my email address, and most importantly, my credit card number. How do they use this information?

In the best of all possible worlds, Amazon.com uses this information only to serve me better. By using "data mining" techniques they can examine my purchase history and make purchase recommendations based upon past choices. They can offer me "One-Click" shopping because already they have my shipping address and credit card number on file. They also can notify me by email of sales or other promotions. But, in the real world, how do they use this information?

Amazon.com has a Privacy Policy. "Amazon.com does not sell, trade, or rent your personal information to others. We may do so in the future with trustworthy third parties, ...". This could be of concern but what does this mean?

You might be surprised to know that almost all publications and organizations make their mailing lists available to third parties. People in the direct mail business use these lists to find out if you are a boat owner and the size of your boat. If you subscribed to a business publication and lived in an affluent postal zip code, they have a pretty good idea of your income. Putting all this information together they "target market" products to you. So electronic merchants aren't doing anything new. Only they are doing it faster.

How concerned should we be? I can't answer that. I like Amazon.com remembering me. It makes my shopping there convenient. If they sell my information to others, I only hope they use good judgment. Then I might receive emails about new and exciting products. If they don't, then I have to do what most of us do already, delete those "junk" emails before reading.

Are there real privacy concerns in cyberspace? Obviously there are. Most won't come from Amazon.com however. They would come from health or financial sites that might have very personal information about us that we hope will be kept confidential.

So enjoy the Internet but be aware that it almost is impossible to be completely anonymous. But maybe we don't want to be.

 _____________________________________________________________________________ Dr. Art Holub is a long time resident of Tustin and teaches computer and Internet courses at the Tustin Area Senior Center and the Tustin Adult School. Visit his web site at: www.arholub.com. This column is written to address the computer adventures and concerns of older adults. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for future columns, Email HIM at: doc@arholub.com.


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