Cookies, in very lay language, are files installed on your hard drive by other computers somewhere out there on the Internet in order for these other computers, wherever they are and whoever may be running them, upright person or not, to get a handle on you and your life.

If you ask Microsoft or AOL or just about anybodyelse who benefits financially from "cookies," you are a lucky person indeedto have these voracious, relentlessly incessant, and non-blushing little creaturesset up house in your private space.

A Cookie's humble purpose in life, says a chirpy article posted on's Profile Center, is "To tell the server [the stranger's computer] that you have returned to that Web page." This soothing, made-for-a-child explanation is roughly equivalent in its disclosure to a cat burglar saying, "What I do, really, is to just go into places."

What cookies really do

I much prefer explanations from people who aren't making money on me when it comes to the significance and potential danger of cookies.

"Imagine that your television remote control informed stations the second you switched to them," JunkBusters says at their home page, "imagine that the queries you type are probably being logged and analyzed;" and imagine that the cookies that made most of this possible (called "persistent cookies") remained attached to your identify for years, even if you change computers, perpetually sneaking away with some of your most cherished possession, including your privacy and your personal interests. Folks, that's really what cat burglars do, metaphorically speaking, in the real world."

Don't let them use your browser as a tool of surveillance," says JunkBusters, and, wow, do I agree with that sentiment. If you agree with my sentiments, either turn your cookies off entirely ("disable" them), or make them visible. If you see them, you can at least decide which strangers will be tracking and, in all likelihood, selling information about your habits and private interests.

Cookie Monsters (those folks that send bad versus good cookies to your computer) chuckle at all this concern, of course. "We don't share information," they seems to say collectively, "or at least we don't share it without permission. Or, if we do share it without permission, it's with people we trust like our moms….well, maybe like our mother-in-law's new boyfriend…er, you know we're not really responsible for what other people do with all those goodies about all those strangers out there. Now while you're here, can I tap your brain? I'm particularly interested in that time three years ago you visited that "sex without love" Web site…."

Cookies can have an impact on your privacy

You have probably already seen the impact of this on your privacy. For instance, have you ever simply dragged your cursor over a Web site without opening it? Maybe you visited a lending site momentarily, found out the site was pushing subprime loans, then left the site without even clicking on it. You don't have to click on a Web site for a cookie to be installed. Days later, you find an unsoliticed piece of mail from some other subprime lender in your e-mail box. Welcome to Cookieland.

"Without the consumer's thoughtful permission, the process of identifying the virtual user has begun," says Michael Firmin, a computer and investment expert in Great Britain, "The cookies normally remain resident indefinitely, continually updating and notifying their creator of your latest activities."

Don't be a part of that rather chilling process unless you are comfortable with its potential downside-particularly before researching auto issues and any other area.

Resources to help you disable your cookies

If you worry at all about this, spend a few useful minutes researching your privacy concerns and how to address them without losing the usefulness of the wonderful World Wide Web and Internet. Remember that the great Wizard of Oz was only a bad guy until he was unmasked by the sweet and innocent Dorothy.