Microsoft Mulls Browser Changes on Privacy Front

Microsoft Corp. this week said it's looking at altering the next version of its Internet Explorer browser to allow users to more easily disable the software's "persistence" feature, which lets Web sites gather some information about Internet usage and identify return visitors even if they have turned off Explorer's ability to accept Internet cookies.

Rick Miller, a Microsoft spokesman, said the feature was designed to let more information be stored at the user level so Web pages can be downloaded more quickly, especially on slower dial-up connections.

But he acknowledged that users who have already disabled Explorer's cookie capabilities may be uneasy about the information gathered by the browser via persistence, such as search queries users have run and Web pages they have visited.

To disable persistence now, Explorer users have to turn off the browser's scripting features. But Miller said Microsoft is considering a plan to include a feature in Internet Explorer 6.0, the next scheduled release of the browser, that would let users clear the cache of Web files in which information gathered via persistence is stored.

Richard Smith, chief technology officer at the Denver-based Privacy Foundation, noted that the persistence feature was introduced in Internet Explorer 5.0, which is now used by half the people who surf the Web.

Microsoft this summer developed a set of cookie management features for Internet Explorer 5.5 that can be downloaded from its Web site. Those features include a button that gives users the ability to delete all cookies and a pop-up box that notifies them when third-party cookies arrive on their systems.

Privacy concerns about the persistence feature in Explorer were first raised by Guille Bisho, a Spanish information technology consultant, in a posting sent this week to the Bugtraq security mailing list. Bisho said Microsoft should provide more information about persistence to users and place an option to deactivate the feature near its browser's cookie controls.

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