What Are Cookies and Why Should You Care?

Computing

Photo by James (Creative Commons 2.0)


We aren’t talking about the chocolate chip, banana-walnut, or apple-cinnamon-raisin variety of cookies (though we think you should care about those too!). We’re talking about HTML or Browser Cookies.

You’ve no doubt come across the term. Ever since 2011, the European Union has mandated that all websites operating from member states clearly inform visitors about how they use cookies and how to opt out of them.

“What are cookies,” you say?

Given the negative light they’re always portrayed in, you might think that cookies are harmful things like viruses. But in all fairness, that’s not strictly the case.

Cookies are very small text files that your web browser stores on your device on behalf of websites you visit. The cookie’s main role is to store information about your browsing for the website, so that it can be retrieved in current and future sessions.

Why do website use them?

Photo by geralt


Websites don’t “know” who is browsing them. Your computer requests a page from the website server, and the server provides it. If you request another page, the server will provide it without knowing (or caring… because servers are just, you know, heartless) that you were the one who requested a previous page. Imagine trying to browse Amazon under those conditions: you favorite an item or add it to your cart, hop on to another page, and find that all your choices have been lost. You’d also be logged out when you refresh the page, because to Amazon, you’re just a new guy requesting that page.

For a website to keep track of its visitors, it sends them a small file when they first visit with which to identify them. This is the elusive cookie. Every time your browser sends a request to the website’s server it sends with it the relevant cookies, with which the server can identify you as a specific user. Servers can edit these cookies and send them back to users, maintaining a sort of “history” of their use of the website.

Cookies are how you can save settings on web pages, personalize how websites appear, remain logged-in even after closing your browser, and maintain your shopping cart across different pages in a website.

In addition to the functions highlighted above, which are essential for the proper functioning of some websites, cookies are also capable of tracking how you browse the website. The pages you visited, the time of your visits, and the length of your stays are all things that cookies can track.

 

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They don’t seem so bad…

Photo by kalhh


This is where the waters get a little murky. Technically, websites can only access the cookies that they created; a website can’t access another website’s cookies. HOWEVER… An ad on a website is NOT part of that website! It belongs to another website, and can deliver cookies to your browser and store them on your device. This is what is known as “third-party cookies”.

So, let’s say a website called MegaAds.com wants to know which ads to serve certain users. It places its ads on several websites (one.com, two.com, three.com)… Users browsing those websites will receive cookies from MegaAds.com, which tracks their browsing on all websites showing the ads, and sends that data back to MegaAds.com. This data will include the websites you were on, the pages visited on those websites, the lengths of time spent on each page, the actions taken on those pages, etc.

This allows MegaAds.com to peer into your life and observe your actions, and serve you ads pertinent to your preferences. MegaAds.com and one.com may also sell the information they have on you to others, who can use it for their own gain. Now while some people may be okay with that, others view that as a massive breach of privacy, especially since none of this data was obtained with your consent and you can’t control who can purchase your data.

And it gets “curiouser” and “curiouser”…

It’s not only about what the cookies themselves can do, but also about who can access them. The internet, as you should well know, is rife with those who will waylay any transmitted information, and even the most well-intentioned of cookies can fall into the wrong hands and pose a threat to your privacy and security.

Diagram from Public Domain


The implications of that could be a bit dangerous: if someone obtains your cookie data for a certain website, and they access that website with that cookie, to that website – for all intents and purposes – that person IS you. This means they can access all sorts of private information about your preferences and can even access sensitive information if your session is still logged in.

 

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So what should you do?

The issue of cookies being a potential threat has been on the radar for almost a decade. That being said, some websites give you the option to opt out of non-essential cookies that they use for tracking browsing patterns and analyzing visitors to their sites. Make sure you look through a website's cookie policy to see what you can turn off to ensure that you’re only sharing what you want to be sharing.

But since not all websites are operating from the EU, browser developers have added options to help users protect themselves and choose the amount of information they want to share with websites.

The options range from completely blocking all cookies (which could make some websites not function properly) to allowing everything that comes in (unadvisable given the possible harm). A sort of middle ground exists where users can block all third-party cookies from the browser’s settings. This means that your browser will only download cookies that originate from the domain you’re visiting, but nothing else.

To find out your cookie settings, you’ll need to go to your browser’s Privacy settings. Each browser is different, and you’ll need to know where to reach the cookie setting for your specific browser. You can also remove all cookies from your browser, accessible through the browser’s private data settings.

Photo from Public Domain


Flash cookies

Another thing you might need to check out is Flash cookies. These are different than regular cookies in that they are stored in the Adobe Flash browser app and are not cleared when you clear normal cookies. Websites sometimes use these as backup cookies for that reason. In order to remove them, you have to do so from the Flash Player settings.

 

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Conclusion

Cookies come in different flavors (pun intended). Some are an essential part of how the internet runs today, while others could constitute a breach of privacy and could pose a security threat. Your browser’s settings and those of the websites you visit can help you protect yourself from harm or invasions of personal privacy.

 



 

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