Meta-Cookies, privacy, and encryption

Gregory Houston (
Fri, 14 Feb 1997 12:21:00 -0600

"Providing access to content is not sufficient to guarentee effective
message passing. A message delivered but ignored, or a message ingested
but not digested, is not useful. In order to inform, the "recipient"
must find the message content engaging and relevant. It is the
contention of the News in the Future group at MIT Media Labatory that
effective communication requires distribution of messages that are rich
in description. These descriptions, when taken with consideration of the
context of both the individiduals and the communities recieving them,
can result in messages that are both engaging and useful." [W. Bender,
opening to his article, "Community and Personalization", from the IBM
Systems Journal, Vol35, Nos.3&4, 1996]

There has been some recent debate on this Elist concerning cookies. One
extreme is to turn them off [for the sake privacy] so your browser does
not accept them. However, I'd like to propose the *choice* or *option*
to take something of the opposite extreme, a meta-cookie.

I would like the internet and specifically the content of the internet,
to attempt to adapt to me. In order for it to do this, I must have a
standard though revisable description of myself available to any server
I browse to. I would call this a meta-cookie. The meta-cookie would
enable content providers to make the content I recieve more "engaging
and useful". I want the Internet to adapt, at least in a temporal
fashion, to my presence.

The meta-cookie could have general information such as name, preferred
alias, age, sex, race, locality, interests, favorite colour,
myers-briggs result, education, fixations and perversions, etcetera,
etcetera. As we begin to understand the science of personalization
better, future versions of the meta-cookie could have more useful

I don't particularly care what people know about me. As far as I'm
concerned the more the better. The only illegal thing I do is use
lysergic acid diethylamide-25. And since I do not consider my use of it
a criminal activity [though the governement and many individuals do],
I'm not about to hide the fact. If some one can use this information to
incremenate me, good. That gives me the opportunity to stand up for my
belief in Freedom of Consciousness. Often the legalization of something
requires that first people be arrrested for doing it, and then
attempting to show how the law is unconstitutional. Now I do not want to
suggest that I know a great deal about the legal system, but my main
point is that I'm not concerned with people knowing what I do or say, be
it taboo, perverse, illegal, revolutionary, or otherwise.

I think this over concern for encryption and privacy only hinders ideas
such as personalization. Perhaps I share the hacker ethic [see the
hacker manifesto], that all information should be available in the open.
I'm not too pleased with the idea that my governement hides information
from me in the name of "national security* while it continues to play
primitive war games with other nations.

I believe the use of encryption is like trying to cure a symptom rather
than the problem. It seems superficially western within a medical
analogy. Perhaps we should attempt to reform government and society so
that we do not feel such a need for encryption and information privacy.
Fantasizing for a moment, I think it would be nice if one day we created
the technology that allowed us to read each other's minds. I don't care
if someone knows what I'm thinking. It would certainly make games like
poker fairly obsolete, but it would improve communication considerably.

On the topic of the meta-cookie. Such information would certainly make
it possible for prejudice and selected information withholding. Fine,
thats what I want. Thats part of personalization. If I go to a site, and
it doesn't offer me information on such and such because my favortie
song is, "The Purple People Eater", then thats fine. If I really want
the information, I can turn off my meta-cookie and return to the site,
or I could even rewrite my meta-cookie so that it would be found
appealing to the site I'm browsing to.

I like the meta-cookie idea better than having to time and time again
type my personal info in for sites. The meta-cookie would facillitate
filling out forms, the site already has access to your general
information, while facillitating also the creation of more site-specific

In general I believe cookies are going to facillitate a major evolution
in education. Education is going to become more and more so
personalized, less authoritarian.

I think I will go make my suggestion to Netscape and Microsoft now.


Gregory Houston