Schmidt: A cookie monster's best friend

The ever-brilliant CEO of Novell has hit upon an ever-brilliant way to sell his company's software -- scare the hell out of folks.Speaking last week in San Francisco at a conference discussing the emerging digital economy, Eric Schmidt let it be known that his credit card number had been swiped by some cyber lowlife hanging out on the Internet.

The ever-brilliant CEO of Novell has hit upon an ever-brilliant way to sell his company's software -- scare the hell out of folks.

Speaking last week in San Francisco at a conference discussing the emerging digital economy, Eric Schmidt let it be known that his credit card number had been swiped by some cyber lowlife hanging out on the Internet.

And he even had a culprit -- cookies.

"Cookies are one of the biggest disasters for computers in the past [several] years," said Schmidt.

Bad news, to be sure, but did they also open the door and allow a no-goodnik interloper to rip off Schmidt's credit card number?

Cookies gone bad
Cookies, as you may recall, are bits of information temporarily stored by a Web server with your Internet browser. Your browser thus recalls specific information that the Web server can later retrieve.

This is big for e-commerce, but it's not a secret way for the server to snoop on you or sniff around the contents of your hard drive.

So it came as something of a shock when someone of Schmidt's industry stature begins railing about cookie monsters.

Purely coincidence, of course, but Novell also happens to be hawking a nifty e-commerce technology called Digitalme that Schmidt and his lieutenants are touting as a big step in the direction of absolute cyber security.

Schmidt also happens to run a company that's a direct competitor of Microsoft (which deserves to get dunned for providing a server-side utility that goes around browsers with cookies blocked.)

To quote the Church Lady: "How conveeeeeenient!

Let's get serious
But Schmidt's claim is being taken seriously in certain quarters.

Cybersleuth Richard Smith of Phar Lap Software Inc., an industry figure with an impressive record on computer security, believes a feature on browser-based e-mail readers could indeed expose user security to cookies.

And in fact, Smith and other consumer advocates last week urged the Federal Trade Commission to force software makers to fix the problem once and for all.

All that aside, you've got to wonder whether Novell's Numero Uno is throwing out a little FUD to get folks' attention.

What with "dotcom" companies spending gazillions of dollars this quarter to brainwash you into remembering their URLs, this is one sweet way to get a headline that people are going to remember -- especially during this e-Christmas selling season.

Surfing around the Web, I find that most account information on reputable e-commerce sites is password-protected and accessed via SSL.

Buying pizza more risky
In fact, Schmidt -- who understands this stuff better than most -- knows that no e-commerce site worth its salt would do anything so dumb as to log potentially damaging information in a cookie.

Let's consider the -- unlikely -- possibility that the cookie contained information that allowed somebody to simply copy it. Before committing fraud, the thief would need direct access to your computer, either directly or through some sort of back door. You run more risk forking over your Visa card to pay for a pie at the local pizzeria.

The burden of proof remains on Schmidt to produce evidence that somebody ripped him off via the Net. Until then, he goes down in my book as just one more sly ol' devil looking to exploit fear to make a buck.