Symantec CEO Urges Cookie Notification

The head of a leading security software vendor denounced the use of data files commonly used by Google Inc. and other Web sites to track user activity, saying such sites should seek permission ahead of time.

John Thompson, chief executive of Symantec Corp. in Cupertino, Calif., said the files, known as cookies, "are just as much an invasion of privacy as someone peering in my bedroom window."

Most major Web sites -- including Symantec's -- use cookies in some fashion.

Although some cookies are essential for remembering passwords and customizing a user's Web experience, they also can be used to create a profile of a user's online activities. Thompson said people are sometimes unaware that a cookie had been created or what gets done with any information collected, such as to target advertising.

"I don't have an issue with people having cookies on their machine as long as I've been told one just got planted there," Thompson said. "I think there is an opt-in option here that should be available to everyone."

He questioned whether there is a "difference between a peeping Tom in the physical world and a cookie prying into my private affairs in the digital world."

Thompson was in Brussels to speak to EU regulators about such issues as Internet security and data privacy.

He would not say if he thought the European Commission should flex its muscles and require user permission for cookies, merely saying "if the EU felt that was a problem, they might want to insert themselves here."

Thompson said he would want to know what Google would do with personal information if it takes over online ad tracker DoubleClick Inc. -- a deal that is already raising concerns about the control the deal would give Google over online advertising and data it collects about search terms.

Google has tried to soothe EU concerns, cutting the time it retains data from 24 months to 18 months. The company also agreed to shorten the life span of its cookie, though it's not clear whether the move would do much to enhance privacy because the expiration date could get automatically extended when users revisit the search engine.

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