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Software tries to fool cookies

A software company is offering a free utility that it claims can keep your surfing habits and other personal information private.

A software company is offering a free utility that it claims can keep your surfing habits and other personal information private.

The utility, which will be released tomorrow by Luckman Interactive, prevents cookies from being read or planted, according to the company.

Luckman developed the software as part of WebSweep, which automatically cleans up files left on your computer after surfing the Net. The package costs $50 but Luckman decided to offer the anticookie part of the package for free.

Other products allow privacy-conscious surfers to clean up cookies--digital tags that Web sites plant on a user's hard drive to track visits. In addition, the next versions of both Netscape's Communicator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer will allow a surfer to set preferences to reject cookies before they are planted. But some Web sites won't allow access without setting a cookie.

Luckman's utility claims to trick Web servers into thinking that they're planting cookies when they're not. It also fools Web sites that want to find cookies already on a surfer's hard drive into accessing an empty folder, according to Marco Papa, Luckman's chief technology officer. In other words, it would be like having a child stick his or her hand into an empty cookie jar as opposed to the full jar, which is hidden safely away in the top cupboard.

Company chairman Brent Luckman said that the product should protect surfers against companies like a DoubleClick, which uses cookies to identify unique users and then send them targeted ads. DoubleClick developes profiles of Netizens according to their surfing habits and keeps them in a database that can be instantly accessed to serve up ads that match interests.

"People should have the right to be anonymous," Luckman said. "You don't give up all your information when you walk into a mall." He added that you shouldn't have to give away information about yourself inadvertently when you click on a Net site.

David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said his organization supports "technological approaches to protecting privacy," especially at a time when marketers are designing all sorts of tools to extract that very same information. However, "most of the so-called technological approaches to privacy come from companies that are trying to make the collection of personal information more palatable," he added.

Marketers have clear financial incentives to find more and better ways to extract personal information from surfers. The more information they have, the better they can target ads and the more they can sell.

Sobel noted privacy experts generally don't like cookies, but that not all cookies are bad ones. It's just difficult to know the difference because unless a surfer specifically configures her browser to do so, she will have no idea that a cookie is being set. And even if she does know that it's being set, she won't know its purpose. Some cookies simply expedite the surfing experience, while others are planted as a means to get information.

"The problem with cookies is that users don't really know what's being placed on their hard drive and how that relates to information being collected at the original Web site," Sobel said. "There's no transparency; that alone is a major problem. Until we really understand what's going on behind the scenes with cookies, it's difficult to assess how bad the problem is. The bottom line is the user has no knowledge or control over that process."