Microsoft has announced plans to test new features within its Internet Explorer browser software that are supposed to give users more control over the use of cookies that can track their online surfing activities.

Microsoft said it's releasing the "privacy-enhancing" features to about 2,000 users for beta testing with the Windows version of Internet Explorer 5.5, which was made available for downloading last week. Within four weeks, the company hopes to release a public beta version for general use that will incorporate the new capabilities.

Key to the changes are easier ways for users to delete cookies that are stored on their computer hard drives, as well as more selective alerts to notify users that a cookie has arrived from Web sites they have visited. Microsoft said it's trying to tighten the cookie controls in reaction to consumer feedback about privacy and security concerns.

Cookies are small pieces of information that can be automatically placed on computer hard drives by a Web site. The cookies are used by the site to collect data about the visitors, from post code information to the type of computer processor being used and other information.

The cookie-collected data can then be used by the Web site's operator to target future online advertisements at the user. Cookies can also be placed by third-party advertisers to help them better target future ads based on the online journeys of users.