Internet Basics: What Are Cookies And How Do They Work?

Cookies are probably on your PC right now. Find out what they are, what they do, the privacy disadvantages, and how they can improve your Internet experience.

If you've spent time on the Internet, you're probably familiar with cookies. Not the ones that tastes good with milk, but the ones probably on your PC right now. The most common misconception about cookies is that they're cyber spies, waiting to record and reveal everything you do on the Web. Although there may be a grain of truth in that, cookies are mostly harmless and enhance much of your online experience.

What are Cookies?

Cookies are simply text files containing information you've submitted to Web sites. Data is usually collected through online registration forms or membership applications you've completed and may include:

* Name and mailing address

* Favorite Web sites

* Goods and services purchased on the Web

* Search engine requests

* Usernames and passwords

* Email address

In addition, cookies retain your shopping cart items when you're buying things on the Internet. And they help some sites "remember' you during future visits so you don't have to re-register or log in again. Cookies can be quite helpful indeed.



How Cookies Work

When you provide information to a site, a Web server takes that data, formats it, deposits it in a cookie, and places on your hard drive. If you revisit that site, the server retrieves the cookie from your PC. It then uses your personal information to identify you, and sometimes, display personalized ads or recommendations.

Since browsers are programmed to accept cookies by default, some people are concerned that this whole process occurs without the visitor's knowledge or consent. However, you can override browser settings to warn you when a cookie is being transferred to your PC, or prevent the placement of cookies on your computer altogether. Unfortunately, in order to access many of their important features, several sites require browsers to accept cookies.

The Disadvantages of Cookies

More sites you visit, the more first-party cookies your computer will acquire. These are cookies from sites you've actually visited. Some of these are temporary and expire once you leave the site. However, many are not. Cookies take up valuable hard drive space, so it may be to your advantage to delete a few on occasion, especially third-party cookies. Third-party cookies are placed on your computer by sites you haven't visited. They usually come from companies who place ads on sites you have visited. Luckily, most browsers give you the option of rejecting only third-party cookies.

Some web servers retrieve cookies placed on your PC by other sites. And they could share that data with anyone. Although this is usually done for marketing purposes, many are fearful of their data being freely distributed throughout the Internet without their consent. They prefer to keep their online activities confidential and see cookies as an invasion of privacy. If you feel similarly, always review a site's policy on its use of cookies prior to supplying any personal data.

Cookies shouldn't be put in the same category as the viruses, spam, or spyware that are often created to wreak havoc and chaos on computers. They are mostly benign tools to help you manage your time more efficiently on the Web. Plus, you have totally control over them if you think your secrecy is being violated. Therefore, accept or reject cookies as you see fit""but certainly don't fear them.

© High Speed Ventures 2011