Users have complained loudly about the various tactics used by many companies to track their Web surfing habits. For example, companies such as DoubleClick routinely track user demographics through the use of cookies. Many users that configure their browser to automatically accept cookies have no idea they are being tracked. To address this issue as well as others, Microsoft pledged to release enhancements to Internet Explorer that would help users better determine when certain types of cookies where being sent to their system, and now those enhancements have become available in beta form.

On Friday, September 1, Microsoft released its new Internet Explorer (IE) Advanced Security Privacy Beta, which gives IE new features that help users determine the origin of cookies to better protect their privacy. According to a description posted on Microsoft's download site, users will now be able to more readily determine if a cookie originates from a site other than the site the user is visiting, such as when an advertising company sends cookies to track a user's Web surfing habits.

According to the README file that ships with the upgrade, there are several known issues that users should be aware of when using the enhanced browser. Connectivity to certain types of FTP servers may not work with enhanced FTP interface. For example, users will have to disable the enhanced FTP interface when connecting to FTP servers via CERN or Web proxy servers, when connecting to VAX or VMS FTP servers, or when using the browser from within a separate application or service.

With the enhancements loaded, IE 5.5 will send non-English URLs to a Web server in a new format called UTF-8. Users may encounter difficulty with accessing servers that don't support UTF-8 format, however the browser has a new configuration option to disable the functionality.

In addition, the enhanced version of IE 5.5 changes the Web content zone security settings where the settings may no longer be consistent with previous versions of IE. To address this issue, when a user upgrades from a previous IE version, setup will automatically save their previous security settings as a Custom Security Level.

The enhancement is not a singular downloadable patch—-users must first download and run the usual "ie5setup" program, which guides the user through updating IE components. Nonetheless, installing the upgrade is easy: when the setup program runs a dialog is displayed where the user may choose from a typical installation of about 10.4MB, or a custom installation that could be as small as 7.8MB if IE, the Offline Browsing Pack, and the Internet Explorer Help system are the only components updated.

Once the update is installed the "About Internet Explorer" dialog (located on the Help pull-down menu) will display an additional line of text near the version numbers, which reads "Update Versions:; Advanced Security Privacy Beta" in addition to any other noted updates. Users will also find two new configuration items in the Security Settings dialog when configuring a Web content zone. The first item, "Allow third party cookies stored on your computer", determines whether third party cookies can be stored to disk. The second item, "Allow third party session cookies", determines whether temporary per-session cookies are accepted into your system. Session cookies are only kept on your system while its related browser session remains active. When the session ends by logging off the site, closing the browser, or other means, any related session cookies are deleted.

If the browser is configured to prompt the user when receiving cookies, a new Privacy Alert dialog will be displayed when a cookie originates from a third party site. Text on the dialog reads, "\[site name\] would like to read a small file (called a cookie) on your computer. Information available to the Web site, such as identity or preferences, may be stored in the cookie". The dialog includes the usual Yes, No, More Info, and Help buttons, and a checkbox that allows the user to make their answer the default so that the dialog is not continually displayed upon receipt of subsequent third party cookies.

Download the beta from Microsoft's Web site, and be sure to review the README file before installing the software.