What are Cookies on My Computer?
While browsing the Internet and visiting websites, you probably encountered a message, usually somewhere at the bottom of the screen, saying:
So, what are cookies, what are they used for and are they dangerous to your digital privacy?
What are Website Cookies?
Of course, we are not talking about the chocolate chip variety here. The cookies we are talking about go by many names:
- Computer cookies
- Browser cookies
- Internet cookies
- Web cookies
- HTTP cookies
But what are cookies on computer?
Cookies are small files stored on your computer that serve to store a small amount of data about the user, such as their username and password. Their main purpose is to identify the user’s device on the network and improve their browsing experience.
Why are Cookies Used by the Web Server?
We already said that the main job of a cookie is to identify the client computer on the network.
Simply put, without cookies, your Internet browsing experience wouldn’t be nearly as smooth as it is as you’d have to log in every time you visit a website, even if you already visited it 100 times before.
Cookies have three main jobs:
- To improve user’s session management and recognize the user’s website preferences and login information
- For tracking what the user previously viewed or clicked on and allow the website to make further suggestions based on that (what products to show them)
- Personalization, or to show the user customized and targeted ads
What are HTTP Cookies?
Internet, or HTTP cookies, allow web browsers to track, store and personalize information about the time a user spends on a website. This time is called a “session”, so we can also call these cookies “session cookies”.
Basically, when you’re visiting a website for the first time, the web server sends out information to your browser and thus a cookie is “born”.
This cookie is then stored locally on your computer and is identified by a “name-value” pair so that the server can retrieve it quickly.
There are two kinds of HTTP cookies:
- Session cookies and
- Persistent cookies
A session cookie is used to navigate a website and is automatically deleted when you leave that website, so they’re never stored on your computer’s hard drive.
A persistent cookie, meanwhile, is stored on the user’s hard drive usually indefinitely, though it may have an expiration date and it has two functions:
- To authenticate a user so you don’t have to enter your login information every time, and
- To track user visits and behavior on the website in order to suggest something that could interest the user
First and Third-party Cookies
Cookies are an important part of streamlining your web browsing experience. They can improve the website’s usability, remember the user’s shopping cart and so on.
However, they can be a danger to your online privacy, especially if we are talking about third-party cookies.
First-party cookies are created by the website you’re on and they can generally improve your browsing experience in the ways we just mentioned.
However, you don’t need to click on a page or visit a website for it to deliver a cookie.
This is the case with third-party cookies, as they are created not by the website you are currently using, but a different one, through links to ads.
Third-party cookies are used by analytics companies and advertisers to track the user’s browsing history on any sites that contain their ads and then display new ads based on the user’s online behavior.
What is a Super Cookie and How to Remove Them?
Speaking of tracking and third-party cookies, you can usually block them or delete them by clearing out your browsing history.
However, you can’t do that with one particular type of third-party cookie called the “supercookie”?
The supercookie is not your regular cookie and it’s not stored in the web browser. Instead, this is a piece of data inserted into the HTTP header that serves as a unique ID for your device on the Internet and allows the ISP to track what websites you visit.
One particular type of supercookie is called a “zombie cookie”. This type of cookie is not stored in your regular cookie storage in the web browser and is practically indestructible. You can’t simply delete a zombie cookie or it will come back.
So how do you delete supercookies?
Supercookies are a particular danger to the user’s privacy online and it can be very difficult to get rid of them, especially if we’re talking about zombie cookies.
What you can do, if given the option, is to opt-out of UIDH tracking by your ISP. UIDH stands for “Unique Identifier Header”. This won’t necessarily disable the header, but instead, tell your ISP not to share your personal data with advertisers looking for a UIDH value.
What are Cookies Pros and Cons?
Cookies are not all bad, however, and they have their pros and cons.
The pros of a computer or web cookie are:
- Better browsing experience. Websites can suggest a more personalized content for you to see
- Easier online shopping. They allow you to come back to the shopping cart and continue where you left off
- Web form submission It’s easier to fill out online forms on web pages
The cons of cookies include:
- Data collection and tracking. They can collect data about you without your knowledge or consent, like with tracking cookies and third-party cookies
- User privacy. Cookies can make your IP address and browsing history public
- They take space. Although cookies are small files in general, they can pile up and eventually take too much space on your hard drive. This is why it’s a good idea to clear cookies from time to time
- They make you vulnerable to session or cookie-side jacking. Check out more on this here.
Where can You Find Cookies and How to Manage Them?
If you’re looking for where your browser stores cookies, you can follow these steps to find them on Chrome:
- Open your Google Chrome web browser
- Go to Chrome Menu > Preferences > Advanced Settings > Privacy and Security > Content Settings > Cookies
- From here, you can allow or disallow cookies on your browser. Just remember before you completely ban cookies that you’ll have to login every time you visit a website
Let’s say you want to block third-party cookies, for instance, on Chrome.
In that case, you’ll have to:
- Open Chrome
- Click More > Settings
- Go to Privacy and Security
- Select on Cookies and other site data
- Click Clear all to clear cookies
Cookies are a bit controversial as you can see.
On one hand, they improve your Internet experience and allow you to shop easier online, but on the other hand, they can be a true menace for your online privacy.
So what is the verdict on computer cookies?
Should you allow or block them?
It really depends on the level of user privacy that you want to have. Are you comfortable with advertisers and analytics companies that you have never been in contact with being familiar with your browsing habits?
Then feel free to allow cookies without prejudice.
However, if you’re at all worried about getting your personal data in the wrong hands, you might want to block certain cookies.
No, you don’t have to accept all cookies. Many websites will include a privacy pop-up where they allow you to customize your privacy settings when it comes to cookies.
Usually, websites have four types of cookies:
You only have to accept necessary cookies in order for the website to function properly.
Cookies are neither good nor bad in general. They can improve your web browsing experience, make online shopping easier and allow you to get more personalized content. However, they also allow advertisers, analytics companies and others to track you online.
You probably should delete existing cookies from time to time, if for nothing else, then to clear up some space on your hard drive.