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Langa List: Track, Bug Cookie No Problem?


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#1 Johnincal

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 12:58 AM

In the latest edition of the LangaList dated 1-24-2005, ( http://www.langa.com/current.htm ) Fred Langa writes the following:

"In most cases, when a banner ad triggers a spyware alert, it's more that your spyware is trying hard to impress you, than actually protecting you from any real harm.

You see, most so-called "tracking cookies" and "web bugs" are 100%, totally, utterly harmless. "

"But anti-spyware vendors give these simple counters scary names ("tracking cookies" and "web bugs") so you'll feel like their software's doing something useful."


I did a search of his past issues, and Fred has been consistant about this issue for years. This is what Fred wrote in a LangaList on 6/28/2001 :

"Another reader wrote in to say that I was wrong about Web bugs and Cookies--- he didn't want "these programs" tracking him!

If they were programs, I'd agree. But they're not. In fact, they are not active in any way at all. Usually the only way a cookie or bug can become associated with any private, personal data is if you *voluntarily* provide private data by filling out a form on a web page associated with the cookie or bug. If you don't give out that data, then almost all the web bug fear-fantasies simply collapse. With no private data to work with, the bugs pose no risk to your privacy.

OK, you might say, but isn't it at least *possible* for bugs and cookies to be used for evil purposes?

Sure. But the chain of events needed to pull off a true covert privacy breach via Web bug--- that is, using a bug to obtain truly private data without the knowledge and, at some level, *cooperation* of the person being targeted--- is so remote as to be almost silly.

Consider this argument-by-analogy: Each year, a few of the Earth's 6+ billion humans are killed by elephants. So, it's 100% true to state that statistically, the odds of you dying under the flat feet of a pugnacious pachyderm are NOT zero. It *could* happen. But for most of us, the risk is so small--- and so easily avoided--- that it makes no sense to equip ourselves with anti-elephant technology. (And if you don't believe me, then perhaps you'll want to buy this marvelous little program I wrote: It's 100% guaranteed to prevent elephants from stepping on your PC, or your money back! <g>)

Reasoning in the same vein: The risks from bugs and Cookies are also nonzero, but small and easily avoided. With just a little common sense, the risks from Cookies and bugs drop so low they're just not worth worrying about.

But all the above doesn't matter to some people: It's almost as if they *want* to believe that Cookies and Web bugs are somehow actively spying on them, or "looking over their shoulders as they surf," even when you can conclusively prove that most Cookies and bugs are utterly harmless."

Now check out what Fred wrote in the next paragraph:

"At one frightening end of the spectrum, I've received email from what seem to be seriously disturbed individuals who believe that unnamed "someones" are out to track their every keystroke and click; believing that their click stream is somehow incredibly valuable or interesting to others. Let me tell you, some of these emails are *really* out there, and the writers seem to be a few short steps from full-blown delusional paranoia. Scary--- and sad.

But even at the gentler end of the anti-Cookie, anti-bug spectrum, there's something that appears to me to be a form of mass hysteria. I think there's a psychology thesis in all this for someone. 8-)
"

I wonder if Fred ever apologized to all of us "seriously disturbed individuals" who obviously "seem to be a few short steps from full-blown delusional paranoia"? I wonder if the spyware community still makes him "Scary---and sad".

It seems to me that Fred took a stand on this issue years ago and after painting the spyware community a bunch of nuts, he is refusing to backtrack on the stand he has taken, even faced with the facts.

Now, I have to admit that I am not an expert on this subject. What I did do was write Fred and expressed my concern. What I would like to know is what the experts here in this forum think about what Fred said. If you disagree with Fred, please tell me what you think and drop Fred an email so he will re-visit this issue. Many novices read his newletter and consider it the bible, do you think Fred is steering them wrong?

Thanks, John

Full read of the 6-28-2001 issue:

http://www.langa.com.../2001-06-28.htm

Edited by Johnincal, 25 January 2005 - 01:05 AM.


#2 cnm

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 01:09 AM

I agree that they are harmless. But they are undesirable. By leaving a record of the sites you visited and the buttons you clicked, they enable the cookie deployer or its affiliates to target "tailored" ads at you.

And of course many people don't want their PC's surfing habits recorded even if personal details aren't readable.
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#3 TeMerc

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 01:35 AM

I'll add what I added over at SWW, in Jeans thread:

Well, one thing is for sure, there seems to be some disagreement over this issue. Granted, overall the web bugs are not too terrible. But the problem lies with the  potential for a malicious code writter to use them.

Most do seem to blow them off as a non threat tho, from what I have found about them.

There are some excellent sites about them too:
http://www.eff.org/P...ng/web_bug.html

http://www.bugnosis.org/faq.html

http://www.spywarein...ticles/webbugs/

http://www.freedom-t...ves/000610.html

http://bcn.boulder.c...nmarketing.html

Those last 2 are the latest it seems. I cannot understand why Fred would not at least acknowledge the potential for users to get invaded by these little buggers. It deserves a mention no doubt.



#4 Paranoid

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 09:06 AM

It's does get a bit tiresome when some guy claims product x is better than product y at detecting spyware, when all they get is cookies.

But this seems to be a result of years of hype and fear-mongering about cookies, in the early 90s. From what I see , there is now a counter-reaction to all this, and many people do know that cookies, even "Tracking" ones are somewhat harmless and easily handled.
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#5 ErikAlbert

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 10:33 AM

It's like having a lamp next to your TV. It would be better for your eyes, but it isn't.
That rumour was send into the world, to sell more lamps.
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#6 JeanInMontana

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 11:38 AM

I guess none of you have ever worked on a machine with 200 to 300 harmless tracking cookies on them. They render the machine nearly useless, they can't be removed using Internet Properties and no one knows what information is collected and who gets to see it.

Edited by JeanInMontana, 25 January 2005 - 11:44 AM.

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#7 Paranoid

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 11:57 AM

I guess none of you have ever worked on a machine with 200 to 300 harmless tracking cookies on them.  They render the machine nearly useless, they can't be removed using Internet Properties and no one knows what information is collected and who gets to see it.

View Post


no i havent. Is there some kind of bug that causes IE to fail when there are 200 cookies? Why cant you remove them? I dont think whether a cookie is"tracking" (third party) or not shouldnt make a difference in clearing them.
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#8 JeanInMontana

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 01:07 PM

I guess none of you have ever worked on a machine with 200 to 300 harmless tracking cookies on them.  They render the machine nearly useless, they can't be removed using Internet Properties and no one knows what information is collected and who gets to see it.

View Post


no i havent. Is there some kind of bug that causes IE to fail when there are 200 cookies? Why cant you remove them? I dont think whether a cookie is"tracking" (third party) or not shouldnt make a difference in clearing them.

View Post

:blush2: It appears I am mistaken about clearing tracking cookies through IO. I just tested it after purposely going to some sites I know use tracking cookies. They did clear with IO.

However, Fred says it is a waste of time to remove tracking cookies at all. Well this is one thing I know from the experience of removing over 200 tracking cookies, the machines were barely functioning. I'm still puzzled though by why were those cookies still there when surely the owners had to have removed cookies at some time before I touched the machines.
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#9 JeanInMontana

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 01:10 PM

It's like having a lamp next to your TV. It would be better for your eyes, but it isn't.
That rumour was send into the world, to sell more lamps.

View Post


That line of thinking would mean that a Peeping Tom was just looking and a Stalker was just following, tracking cookies are NOT harmless.
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#10 ErikAlbert

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 02:11 PM

JeanInMontana,
OK, consider them as "dangerous". I'm not going to argue about this.
As a file-type cookies are harmless, only the contents of cookie can be "dangerous" and you always can read a cookie with any text-processor to see what kind of data it contains.

It depends on your personal degree of paranoia and behaviour on the internet.
After a wild surfing session, I clear my cookies, otherwise I keep my cookies.
I had bigger malware problems, than cookies and good cookies are a big help.

An internet connection is always risky, but internet is not going to turn me into a complete paranoiac.
I prefer a minimum protection and once internet is totally out of control, I disconnect my computer from the internet.
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#11 JeanInMontana

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 02:19 PM

JeanInMontana,
OK, consider them as "dangerous". I'm not going to argue about this.
As a file-type cookies are harmless, only the contents of cookie can be "dangerous" and you always can read a cookie with any text-processor to see what kind of data it contains.

It depends on your personal degree of paranoia and behaviour on the internet.
After a wild surfing session, I clear my cookies, otherwise I keep my cookies.
I had bigger malware problems, than cookies and good cookies are a big help.

An internet connection is always risky, but internet is not going to turn me into a complete  paranoiac.
I prefer a minimum protection and once internet is totally out of control, I disconnect my computer from the internet.

View Post


You were never asked to argue were you? There is no reason to insinuate that I am any sort of paranoid. Your twisting words, there is no need for that either.
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#12 ErikAlbert

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 02:51 PM

Woohoo you are too touchy for me, now I really quit this topic and my sincere apologizes. Remember I was talking about cookies, not about you, more about me.
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#13 bem

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Posted 25 January 2005 - 10:10 PM

Cookies are:

At the very least, a waste of my bandwidth and time. Anything that takes up my up time to report back to whomever can intercept it what I've been doing on the web is wasting my time.

A diminishment of my options. I don't want what THEY think I should see, I want the full spetrum of options everytime.

An intrusion on my privacy. Unless I choose to tell you, or you are clever enough and work at it, it is nobody's business who I am, where I am, where I go, or what I look at. Period.

A scam (see first point). Just because they say they don't share info with anyone doesn't make it so. It has been proven time and again that unsolicited offers come via info only possibly gathered from cookies on so called private sites. Let alone who could intercept this info.

I use the simple but effectifive Cookie Wall program to keep login cookies for sites that I frequent and dump EVERYTHING else. Let em guess what I'm interested in. If they want my participation in a market study, they can jolly well offer me something in compensation. I didn't buy my computer nor my ISP service so they could figure out what they could sell.

#14 Johnincal

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Posted 26 January 2005 - 11:40 PM

Cookies are:

At the very least, a waste of my bandwidth and time.  Anything that takes up my up time to report back to whomever can intercept it what I've been doing on the web is wasting my time.

A diminishment of my options.  I don't want what THEY think I should see, I want the full spetrum of options everytime.

An intrusion on my privacy.  Unless I choose to tell you, or you are clever enough and work at it, it is nobody's business who I am, where I am, where I go, or what I look at.  Period.

A scam (see first point).  Just because they say they don't share info with anyone doesn't make it so.  It has been proven time and again that unsolicited offers come via info only possibly gathered from cookies on so called private sites.  Let alone who could intercept this info. 

I use the simple but effectifive Cookie Wall program to keep login cookies for sites that I frequent and dump EVERYTHING else.  Let em guess what I'm interested in.  If they want my participation in a market study, they can jolly well offer me something in compensation.  I didn't buy my computer nor my ISP service so they could figure out what they could sell.

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Well said bem! After following this issue on this site and others I have been following since the article came out, I couldn't have said it better! Thanks for your input bem!

#15 Johnincal

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Posted 28 January 2005 - 03:17 AM

In the 1-27-05 LangaList, Fred did a follow-up story and admitted that he recieved a lot of email about the article he wrote this week concerning cookies.
www.langalist.com

The article is quite long, and I suggest that you read the whole thing. I just wanted to quote one paragraph here:

"When you think it through, you'll see that cookies, per se, simply aren't much of a problem any more. They're very low-order threats, easily managed; and, when so managed, are almost always completely harmless."


What I think is lacking in the subject again in this follow-up article, is that Fred uses words like "aren't much of a problem" and "almost completely harmless". You will see some other well crafted words in the article.

My point is, why doesn't Fred spell out exactly what the risks are, instead of something vague like "much" and "almost"? Then that way we can make an informed decision on this issue.

My thought is...I can say that websites "aren't much of a problem" and they are "almost completely harmless". If you consider how many websites are out there and how few can hurt you, you should not worry about having a AV or Anti-Spyware software. If you consider the percentage of bad ones as compared to the good ones, the chances are small of getting a virus or spyware. If you compare the "blocked" sites in Spyware Blaster for instance, it is a very small percentage of the total websites out there.

All that I am saying is Fred should give us the complete information of the what exactly the bad side of cookies could be and let us decide how we feel about this issue.

I am not worried about the "almost" all harmless cookies...I just want to know what the others do.

#16 JeanInMontana

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Posted 28 January 2005 - 07:58 AM

I agree with you John, and Fred is very wrong about some of the things he said in that article.

He stated that cookies couldn't gather any information that you didn't give them in a form you fill out on the site the cookie resides and that is not true.

The idea that cookies "invade" your privacy is plain paranoia. A cookie
can only contain what you told the site. How can it be an invasion if YOU
voluntarily provided the information?


I know first hand and have a screen shot to prove that at least one tracking cookie can gather an IP address and other information. All you have to do is land on the page the cookie is.

I just can't help but think Fred has his own agenda for his defense of tracking cookies.
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#17 Paranoid

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Posted 28 January 2005 - 10:36 AM

Cookies are:

At the very least, a waste of my bandwidth and time.  Anything that takes up my up time to report back to whomever can intercept it what I've been doing on the web is wasting my time.


So block them.

A diminishment of my options.  I don't want what THEY think I should see, I want the full spetrum of options everytime.


Well if we all had full "specturm of options" I would be having acess to your bank account right now :)

An intrusion on my privacy.  Unless I choose to tell you, or you are clever enough and work at it, it is nobody's business who I am, where I am, where I go, or what I look at.  Period.


So block them.

A scam (see first point).  Just because they say they don't share info with anyone doesn't make it so.  It has been proven time and again that unsolicited offers come via info only possibly gathered from cookies on so called private sites.  Let alone who could intercept this info. 


That only happens, if they can associate a email address with your cookie. And that's not possible unless you enter that in. A point made in Langa's newsletter i think.
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#18 Paranoid

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Posted 28 January 2005 - 10:53 AM

I agree with you John, and Fred is very wrong about some of the things he said in that article.

He stated that cookies couldn't gather any information that you didn't give them in a form you fill out on the site the cookie resides and that is not true. 

The idea that cookies "invade" your privacy is plain paranoia. A cookie
can only contain what you told the site. How can it be an invasion if YOU
voluntarily provided the information?


I know first hand and have a screen shot to prove that at least one tracking cookie can gather an IP address and other information. All you have to do is land on the page the cookie is.

View Post


Er Jean? Do you know that everytime you visit any webpage your ip address is known to the web server? That's how they know where to send the info to. Since the cookies are produced by the webserver, the cookies will have the ip as well. Your ip address isn't really a secret.

Nothing sinister about that. Generally, the "tracking ability" of such cookies are limited because they can only be read and altered by the domain that created them.
In such cases, cookies only help the site to "remember" you. The nice thing about it is the info resides on your computer, so you can see exactly what they know about you. So what if www.buy.com wants to remember that x.y.z.s bought 2 shirts on 23.2.05 via a cookie?

It may become a problem though if you accept third party cookies which are served by adservers all over the net. That way, the content on the cookie can be updated with info on the sites you visit and a demographic profile of you can be built.

Even then, all they have is a ip address, which sounds creepy, but they don't knwo anything else about you. Unless you enter your real name, your email etc in forms.


I just can't help but think Fred has his own agenda for his defense of tracking cookies.


I don't think Fred always get the technical details right, but in this case, I think it's just a matter of not being careful enough in explaining what he means.

Are cookies a privacy issue? Sure they can be. Are they dangerous/ a security issue ? No, not really, unless in rare cases, where cross-site scripting attacks allow other sites to steal/read/modify cookies from other domains.
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#19 JeanInMontana

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Posted 28 January 2005 - 06:04 PM

Er Jean? Do you know that everytime you visit any webpage your ip address is known to the web server? That's how they know where to send the info to. Since the cookies are produced by the webserver, the cookies will have the ip as well. Your ip address isn't really a secret.


Yes I do know that. Are you aware that the server cookies and a tracking cookie are not the same thing? Server logs are not open for the general public to view either and the results of the cookie I am referring to were. Any one could click on the icon on the page and see every visitors IP address, and the rest of the info collected. No one filled out any information. Which is what Fred said was the only way a cookie could gather that sort of information. You can find out an awful lot about a person with an IP address and that can pose a big danger. There is no argument that it is an invasion of privacy.

I don't think Fred always get the technical details right, but in this case, I think it's just a matter of not being careful enough in explaining what he means.


The question that started this debate was in reference to the tracking cookie used on Information Week, Fred writes for it and he was defending it's use. He has his own agenda.

By the way blocking cookies will render most sites inoperable.
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#20 Paranoid

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Posted 29 January 2005 - 05:04 AM

Er Jean? Do you know that everytime you visit any webpage your ip address is known to the web server? That's how they know where to send the info to. Since the cookies are produced by the webserver, the cookies will have the ip as well. Your ip address isn't really a secret.


Yes I do know that. Are you aware that the server cookies and a tracking cookie are not the same thing? Server logs are not open for the general public to view either and the results of the cookie I am referring to were.


Actually the term "tracking cookie" is meaningless , since the purpose of a cookie is to track the user. A way to keep track of users given that the HTTP procotol is a stateless protocol.

As far as I can tell, tracking cookies is a term made up to refer to third party cookies.

Jean, the cookies are not "open for the general public". They are open only to you and the web server that created them.

Any one could click on the icon on the page and see every visitors IP address, and the rest of the info collected.  No one filled out any information.  Which is what Fred said was the only way a cookie could gather that sort of information.  You can find out an awful lot about a person with an IP address and that can pose a big danger.  There is no argument that it is an invasion of privacy.


Er I think you need to post the page. Sounds to me though This isn't the result of a cookie. Any webserver can arrange to post it logs so that anyone can view them . With or without cookies.

Even if you turn off cookies, your ip address is logged and I can easily make it available to the public. Why blame cookies?


See http://extremetracki...?login=alexucho for example. I could also arrange to keep my weblogs public too. All without cookies :)

I suppose any webserver could arrange also to reveal any other aspect of its operation on the web, but this is hardly the fault of the cookie.

BTW I'm sure you already know this, but everytime you go on a page, the http header gives away a lot of information about your system specs, the browser, the plugins, resolution etc etc. There are ways to mask that of course, but it's hardly a big threat.

If you mean that Fred is wrong because such information is automatically known by the web server, than I suppose you are right :) . I thought he was talking about real personal info like address, email , though.

Edited by Paranoid, 29 January 2005 - 05:16 AM.

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#21 JeanInMontana

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Posted 29 January 2005 - 10:34 AM

Jean, the cookies are not "open for the general public". They are open only to you and the web server that created them.


I never said they were, I said the information gathered was.

Er I think you need to post the page. Sounds to me though This isn't the result of a cookie. Any webserver can arrange to post it logs so that anyone can view them . With or without cookies.


Right now I could care less what it sounds like to you. I know damn well what it was. It was a tracking cookie from OneStat. The server DID not post the logs. I said that too. The information was all gathered by the cookie.

Fred is wrong because he said a cookie can not gather any information that you do not fill out in a form on the web site. That is not true.

You need to read what is really being said and was said, if you haven't read the articles Fred wrote I suggest you do. If you feel you need to see what the cookie collected you can see it here Temerc Internet Security Site
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#22 Paranoid

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Posted 29 January 2005 - 11:23 AM

Jean, the cookies are not "open for the general public". They are open only to you and the web server that created them.


I never said they were, I said the information gathered was.


And I already said this information is gathered whether you allow cookies are not.


Er I think you need to post the page. Sounds to me though This isn't the result of a cookie. Any webserver can arrange to post it logs so that anyone can view them . With or without cookies.


Right now I could care less what it sounds like to you. I know damn well what it was. It was a tracking cookie from OneStat. The server DID not post the logs. I said that too. The information was all gathered by the cookie.


And I already pointed out to you that your ip address is known , cookie or no cookie.

Fred is wrong because he said a cookie can not gather any information that you do not fill out in a form on the web site.  That is not true.

You need to read what is really being said and was said, if you haven't read the articles Fred wrote I suggest you do.  If you feel you need to see what the cookie collected you can see it here Temerc Internet Security Site

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I have read all that. Your problem seems to be that you are freaked out over that your IP address is known. That is unavoidable unless you use a proxy server.
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#23 JeanInMontana

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Posted 29 January 2005 - 11:38 AM

And I already said this information is gathered whether you allow cookies are not.

This information is gathered by the server, I am talking about a tracking cookie placed on the page before you enter the site that gathered all this other information.

And I already pointed out to you that your ip address is known , cookie or no cookie.

It is known only to the server! I can't see your IP address just because we are both members of this group. THE COOKIE gathered the rest and anyone could display that information, by clicking the icon for the cookie.

I have read all that. Your problem seems to be that you are freaked out over that your IP address is known. That is unavoidable unless you use a proxy server.

I'm not freeked out at all. Weary of telling you the same thing over and over yes.
This discussion is now off topic because you insist on concentrating on whether or not I am aware of server logs and their information. I am.

The topic here is about what Fred Langa told a reader. Fred is wrong. Cookies can and do gather information not supplied in any form. End of story.
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#24 Paranoid

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Posted 29 January 2005 - 12:03 PM

Okay you believe whatever you want, it seems to me there is no point further explaining since you don't want to listen.
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#25 cnm

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Posted 29 January 2005 - 12:58 PM

Topic does seem more than adequately covered and I'm closing it.

A cookie is a simple data file and cannot do anything.
The server which created it will know your IP, and if you logged in it will know your user name and any user info you supplied when you signed up.

Cookies for a forum record your current session ID and the topic you are viewing.

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Microsoft MVP Windows Security 2005-2006
How camest thou in this pickle? -- William Shakespeare:(1564-1616)
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