Internet Smart: What is a cookie and how are they used?

Cookies are delicious and tempting little things. With sweet promises of ease of use, saving preferences and passwords so users don’t have to retain them, storing history for next time we come and what items were added to the cart. These all sound like great party favors for websites to offer and services that do benefit users. When we see cookies on the internet, we should treat them like goodies on the street. What I mean is that if you saw your friend, your mom, someone you know well, you would probably accept any goodies without asking any questions. What if it was your next door neighbor, or the neighbor down the street? You would possibly first want to consider how well you knew the person to make the appropriate determination. Now, what if it is a complete stranger offering you a treat? The person who offers you this gift, treat or tool is totally unknown to you; you may have never even seen them in passing. This is creates a concern of what is possibly “strange” or overreaching, even dangerous, that may not have illuminated before.

A cookie is a type of spyware, no matter what its intended functionality or purpose is. Spyware has a scary name, like the Web, Net and most connections therein but can have beneficial or useful functionality.

A normal cookie contains detail of what a visitor has done on a particular website, such as the pages they visited, the contents of their electronic carts and so on. A website that uses cookies will save it onto the visitor’s computer or device, and then retrieve it when the same visitor later returns, so that they can ‘recreate’ the previous experience the visitor had and provide a seamless experience.

Tracking cookies are a specialized type of cookie that can be shared by more than one website or service. They are commonly used for legitimate marketing and advertising purposes, but because they contain a history of the user’s actions on multiple sites, they may be exploited or misused to track the user’s behavior. They can be recorded, retained or distributed from that point.

Why are they used?

When used for marketing, a website may share its tracking cookie with a third-party analytics service, which examines how visitors behave so they can improve the site’s designs or offerings.

It is also common for a third-party advertising service to offer advertising content and a tracking cookie that can be shared between sites, so that whenever a visitor moves from one site to another, they can be shown new advertising instead of the same content they had previously seen.

Advertising and marketing services typically anonymize and collate data from thousands or even millions of users, making it highly unlikely that any individual’s habits are closely examined. Many users however still express discomfort at the idea of their web browsing habits being tracked.

The FTC– Federal Trade Commission (US) issues the following guidance regarding the tracking cookies used on government sites:

Two general types

Single-Session cookies

  • help with navigation on the website
  • only record information temporarily and are erased when the user quits the session or closes the browser
  • are enabled by default in order to provide the smoothest navigation experience possible
  • are known as Tier 1 technologies under applicable government guidance

Persistent/Multi-Session cookies

  • remain on your computer and record information every time you visit some websites
  • are stored on the hard drive of your computer until you manually delete them from a browser folder, or until they expire, which can be months or years after they were placed on your computer
  • are used by the FTC solely to provide analysis of site use and to maintain access quality for users; capture only a unique, randomly assigned identifier for each user and do not send or receive information on non-FTC websites
  • are known as Tier 2 technologies under applicable government guidance

Most modern web browsers allow users to block websites from saving cookies onto their computers, or only allowing certain websites to do so. Alternatively, many privacy-conscious users just clear their browser cache after every session to remove any saved cookies, or use security software to do so.

Many websites do not function correctly if cookie use is disabled. For example, websites with password-protected areas and retail sites with shopping cart systems usually require cookies for certain features to work.

You may also be able to customize the cookies a certain website uses with preferences within each site that offers cookies. It is not always necessary to avoid cookies but they can hamper your system and compromise your security so you definitely want to be sure that you know what cookies are tracking you on each browser and device you use.

What else is there?

Staying Safe on the internet

How to Delete a File or Photo from the Internet

Photo by Pixabay on

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