Microsoft mulls ‘persistence’ changes to Internet Explorer

Microsoft Corp. is 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’ve turned off Explorer’s ability to accept Internet cookies.

Rick Miller, a Microsoft spokesman, said the persistence 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. Miller 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’ve 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 capability in Explorer 6.0, the next scheduled release of the browser that would let users clear the cache of Web files in which information gathered by the persistence feature is stored. While the specific plans aren’t finalized, Explorer 6.0 “will have enhanced privacy protections” for users, he added.

Microsoft this summer developed a set of cookie management features for 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 from companies such as online advertisers seeking to monitor overall Web usage.

Privacy concerns about the persistence feature in Explorer were first raised by Guille Bisho, a Spanish information technology consultant, in a posting sent last Saturday 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 the browser’s cookie controls.