Last Sunday I wrote about “smart cookies” and a friend said, “But what about computer cookies?” So, here we go.
When you visit a website, the website sends the cookie to your computer, which stores it in a file inside your web browser. The term “cookie” was coined by web-browser programmer Lou Montulli in 1994. He derived it from the term “magic cookie,” which programmers used to describe a packet of data a program receives and sends back unchanged.
Cookies are also used to remember pieces of information that the user previously entered into form fields, such as names, addresses, passwords, and payment card numbers, operating as a kind of bookmark. Another use is to keep a record of your most recent visit or to record your login information.
Different types of cookies keep track of different activities. For example:
— Session cookies are used only when a person is actively navigating a website; once you leave the site, the session cookie disappears.
— Authentication cookies track whether a user is logged in, and if so, under what name.
Under normal circumstances, cookies cannot transfer viruses or malware to your computer. Because the data in a cookie doesn’t change when it travels back and forth, it has no way to affect how your computer runs.
However, some viruses and malware can be disguised as cookies. For instance, “supercookies” can be a potential security concern. A “zombie cookie” re-creates itself after being deleted, making zombie cookies tough to manage. Third-party tracking cookies can also cause security and privacy concerns, since they make it easier for unidentifiable parties to watch where you are going and what you are doing online.
But, there are ways to manage your cookies in order to protect your privacy online. Open your browser and find where cookies are stored, usually under a heading such as “Settings>Privacy.” You will find a range of options for enabling or deleting cookies. A setting that controls or limits third-party and tracking cookies can help protect your privacy while still allowing you to shop online and carry out similar activities.
However, banning all browser cookies could make some websites difficult or impossible to navigate. Without cookies, internet users may have to re-enter their data for each visit. It’s best to find a middle ground, if you can.
You may be able to achieve anonymity by using a virtual private network (VPN). These services tunnel your web connection to a remote server that poses as you. Cookies will be labeled for that remote server in another country, instead of your local computer. VPNs require another learning curve, of course, and they charge for their services.
If you want a LOT of technical detail, check out “computer cookies” on Wikipedia. There are many other sites, as well, that explain how cookies work.
Happy learning curve!