A Closer Look At Cookies

Category: Browsers , Privacy

I often get email from people who misunderstand or fear browser cookies. And that's no wonder, given all the false and misleading information that's out there. Since 1996, I've been working to dispel the cookie myths, and neither the technology nor my opinion of cookies has changed much since then. Read on for a closer look at the good, the bad, and the crumbly aspects of web browser cookies...

Eat Your Cookies!

Cookies is the term used for little chunks of data that web servers can store on your hard drive. Cookies record information about your visit to a particular site, and can ONLY be read back later by the site that created them. They are often used to make your web surfing more personal and convenient, but some people fear that cookie abuse could lead to loss of privacy.

More and more sites are using cookies to enhance your web experience and enable some pretty cool features. Yahoo, for example, uses cookies to help you customize the site to suit your likings. If you specify that you want baseball scores, political headlines and a handful of quotes from your stock portfolio, Yahoo will record those preferences in a cookie. Then each time you return, the Yahoo server will read that cookie and customize the site accordingly.

It's kind of like going to a restaurant where the waiter remembers your name and knows you like blue cheese dressing and extra croutons on your salad.
Browser Cookies

Some sites require that you create a userid and password to login before you can access certain content, but it can be a nuisance to remember and enter this information each time you return. Another good use for cookies is to remember your default settings at certain search engines. Search sites like Google allow you to set preferences for language, number of results, output formatting and color schemes. By storing this data as a cookie, you only have to enter it once.

And if you do any online shopping, cookies make it possible to use a shopping cart where you can place your selections before checking out. You can even logoff half way through a shopping expedition and pick up later right where you left off. Some stores will even store your billing address in a cookie so you don't have to re-type when you place another order.

What's in a Cookie?

All of this reading and writing of cookies normally takes place without the user knowing that it's going on behind the scenes. Let's take the mystery out of cookies by finding out where they live and what's inside of them. Cookies are stored in a variety of places, depending on your browser and operating system. Here's how to view your cookies in the most common browsers:

  • Internet Explorer: Click Tools (or the Gear icon), then Internet Options, then click Settings under "Browsing History". Click "View Files" to open the folder containing files where cookies are stored.
  • Firefox: Click Tools, Options, then click the Privacy tab. Clicking the link that says "remove individual cookies" will open a new window which allows you to browse through all your cookies. (You don't actually have to remove any if you don't want to.)
  • Chrome: Click the wrench icon, click Options, then click the "Under the Hood" link. In the Privacy section, click "Content settings" then click "All cookies and site data" to view your cookies.

Once you locate your cookies, you'll probably be surprised at the number of entries squirreled away by sites you've never heard of. That's because many popular sites have banner ads that are served up by other companies such as DoubleClick and LinkExchange. A typical cookies file contains the name of the site that wrote the entry, an expiration date, and some additional data pertaining to your visit to a site. Other crumbs of data that may be stored in cookies include your domain name (the part to the RIGHT of the "@" sign in your e-mail address -- NOT your username), the date and time of your visit, the type of computer, operating system and browser you have, and a history of the pages you visit at a specific site. Big deal, huh?

Cookies Are Safe

It's important to remember that a cookie cannot store any personal data such as your name, e-mail address or phone number UNLESS YOU EXPLICITLY PROVIDE THAT INFORMATION on a form at the site creating the cookie. Further, the safety features built into the cookies technology DO NOT ALLOW a website operator to access other files on your hard disk, or to look at cookies that were created by other sites.

Remember these important facts about cookies:

  • Cookies are designed to save you time and make surfing easier
  • Cookies cannot access personal data or files from your hard drive
  • Cookies can only be read by the website that created them

Can Cookies Be Bad For You?

None of the information stored in a cookies file is really shocking in and of itself, but it's the ability to track the specific sites and pages you visit that worries some people. Since ad agencies like DoubleClick have their hooks in many popular sites, there is the potential that they could surreptitiously gather information on the web surfing habits of individuals. If this information was sold or improperly analyzed, it could cause trouble in the wrong hands. Google, which owns DoubleClick, says they only use cookies to help them display relevant ads, and to keep users from seeing the same ad too many times. They are never used to personally identify an individual. See Is Google's Privacy Policy Evil? to find out why I believe this is in fact true.

Nonetheless, some are envisioning more frightening scenarios involving cookies and privacy. Could you face the prospect of being denied a job because you visited a website advocating the legalization of marijuana? Get hit with an insurance rate hike after visiting a cancer informaton site? Or find the Feds at your door after browsing through online bomb making information?

Such prospects seem highly unlikely to yours truly, but some privacy advocates see danger ahead. They believe that cookies can or will be used to stealthily track every move users make online, and that sharing such information by online marketers should be prohibited. Other uninformed sources refer to cookies as "spyware" and encourage people to turn them off completely. Some unscrupulous software vendors offer free software that identifies all cookies as "security threats" and then try to scare you into paying for a "removal" program.

Others are quick to point out that internet service provicers have always had the ability to track the actions of subscribers at a finer level, and know much more about their users than cookies could ever reveal to website operators. Armed with your name, home address, credit card number, and the ability to record every word you write in the the "Cheatin' Hearts" chat room, one would think the potential for abuse is much higher. But in over 15 years of covering this topic, I've not come across any anecdotal evidence that this (or any other cookie horrors imagined by the pundits) has ever happened.

Tossing Your Cookies

If you're convinced that cookies pose a threat to your privacy, and you're willing to live without the convenience they provide, there are a variety of ways to block, delete and even totally prevent cookies.

In the Chrome browser, click the icon that looks like three horizontal bars, in the upper right corner of the browser window. Click Settings / scroll down and click "Show advanced settings". Under Privacy, use the Content Settings or Clear Browsing Data buttons.

In Firefox, go to Tools / Options / Privacy, then in the History section, change the dropdown from "Remember history" to "Use custom settings for history". Then you'll have the option to accept, refuse, view or delete cookies. Unchecking the "Accept third-party cookies" option may be a good compromise because it eliminates cookies from third-party ad serving firms such as Doubleclick.

In Internet Explorer, you can do much the same thing by selecting Tools (Gear icon) / Internet Options / Security / Custom Level. Checking the "Warn before accepting cookies" box does give you the option to accept cookies only from sites you trust, but gets really annoying after a while.

Another idea is to use the Private Browsing feature in your browser. This will prevent any new cookies from being written to your hard disk, while allowing cookies to function normally during a single browser session. So you could still use online shopping sites, but you'd miss out on the ability to use customization features at sites like Yahoo. See my article What is Private Browsing? to learn more about this feature.

If you're really concerned about online privacy, visit Anonymizer.com or see my related article on Personal VPNs to make all your web viewing totally anonymous and frustrate the cookie senders. You can also download CCleaner, a free tool to remove cookies and other unwanted files.

I hope this info helps you to understand the truth about web browser cookies. Feel free to pass this article along to a friend, and post your comments below...

 
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Most recent comments on "A Closer Look At Cookies"

Posted by:

Val
03 Apr 2012

"It's important to remember that a cookie cannot store any personal data" - Technically, yes it can. It can write any information that the website has access to.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You've edited my statement out of context. Here's what I said, which is quite different: "It's important to remember that a cookie cannot store any personal data such as your name, e-mail address or phone number UNLESS YOU EXPLICITLY PROVIDE THAT INFORMATION on a form at the site creating the cookie."

"Nonetheless, some are envisioning more frightening scenarios involving cookies and privacy. Could you face the prospect of ... Or find the Feds at your door after browsing through online bomb making information? - ABSOLUTELY. Ask Casey Anthony if searching for chloroform can be used as circumstantial evidence against you.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Apples and oranges. In criminal cases like this, the authorities have physical access to your computer, and can access ALL files (even deleted ones). A remote website reading its own cookie isn't even close to a similar situation.

You would be most amazed at what information can be gleaned from cookies on a computer - from a forensics perspective. I have been able to determine where a virus was first encountered by sifting through files including cookies.


Posted by:

Margaretp
03 Apr 2012

Most of the information you provide is relevant & helpful - but only if you use Windows. No mention of Safari, for instance in this one about cookies. A bit frustrating as the Apple eaters among us have trouble sometimes too mp


Posted by:

Gordon Lee
03 Apr 2012

Bob,
I use "Chrome". To get to "Under the Hood" after you click on Wrench Icon, click on "Settings". On the left of the window under "Settings" click on "Under the Hood". In this window You then find "Privacy."
Hope this helps.
Gordon.


Posted by:

Phil Reed
03 Apr 2012

Bob,

I've never been concerned about cookies since I have read articles through the years like this. But a recent article made me think twice about them.

This article stated that before you go looking on an airline's Web site for the cheapest fares, you should delete your latest cookie from that airline. Otherwise that cookie will hold info about your last purchase, and if your last purchase was/is higher than what the airline currently has listed for that day, it will show you a higher price or a price around what you previously paid. This way you think you're getting a good deal...when in fact, you may be paying more.

Not sure if this is true...but as I said, it got me thinking. What do you say?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I've heard something similar... not sure if it's true. An alternative to deleting cookies would be to use private browsing while shopping for airfare.


Posted by:

Arlen G
03 Apr 2012

That was an easy-to-understand explanation of cookies. They seemed like something to worry about before, but I feel more sanguine and reassured now. Thanks.


Posted by:

duane
04 Apr 2012

Spybot Search and Destroy always brings up about 25 to 30 cookies each week when I scan. I've been having the program "fix" them, but I guess I'll leave them alone after reading your fine article.


Posted by:

Bud
04 Apr 2012

A write up of persistent or long term cookies such as Flash cookies could be valuable.


Posted by:

John H
04 Apr 2012

I won't be concerned about cookies anymore


Posted by:

Buffet
04 Apr 2012

SuperAntispyware list all those cookies as spyware - dangerous infections. I always delete them immediately. It's far too risky to be compromised by these fiendish bugs with such an innocuous name. Good riddance to malware!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sigh...


Posted by:

cliff
04 Apr 2012

Bob
Good stuff
But, we don't see any IE Cookies at:
>>>>>

•Internet Explorer: Click Tools, Internet Options, then click Settings under "Browsing History". Click "View Files" to open the folder containing files where cookies are stored.
>>>>>>>>>>
Those seem to be Temporary Files.



Posted by:

cliff
04 Apr 2012

Not seeing the things referenced in IE ;
Is this valid for Win-7 IE-8???


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
04 Apr 2012

@cliff ~ Those Temporary Files are the Internet Temporary Files or Cookies. :O)

Bob, another great article! I am so glad, that you do review articles, to help Newbies and to remind the Oldies, that things change or stay the same.

I am not concerned about Cookies, like so many others. I don't like being 'tracked', though. Just a thing with me, is all. However, I know to use CCleaner to clean out my Cookies, so that I can open Internet pages, faster. I don't like waiting for Web pages to open, especially since I have had Broadband for 13 years!!! I know, spoiled rotten. :O)

I learned about 'cleaning' out Cookies, way back when I had a 1.3GB Hard Drive!!! Yep, about a hundred years ago, in computer talk.


Posted by:

nahabze
04 Apr 2012

Bob - I have a question... I have cleaned out the cookies on some of my friends' computers (that never cleaned them), and it seems to dramatically improve their performance. I believe that it really makes a difference. What's your take on this observation?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I can't see why that would be so. Cookies files are tiny, and would not be accessed unless you visit the site that created them.


Posted by:

sfecla dimitrie
05 Apr 2012

And ACTA ? And the policy of Google to sel the IP ?


Posted by:

LinD
05 Apr 2012

There are far too many websites that won't work correctly, or at all, if cookies are disabled. I prefer to leave cookies enabled.

I also delete them all, and my browser history, at the end of every session. Not because any third party will be able to track where I've been, but because anybody with access to my computer will be able to track where I've been. A former boss was perfectly willing to browse thru the computers of those who worked for him, and use what he found against them. Legal? Illegal? Didn't matter, as he used it in his little dominance games, and it was impossible to prove where he got the info. He didn't like me much, as I not only deleted everything regularly, I taught everybody else how to do the same.

Third party vendor cookies have always been the least of my worries.


Posted by:

Adams
06 Apr 2012

Thanks for the info!!!


Posted by:

robyne thomas
09 Nov 2013

hey i need to find my password n email comment back who ever knows it its for facebook can you search it up plzz ill do anything for you just find my password for facebook ill give you n 250$ dollars reward who ever finds it plzz my privat stuff are on there n pics n messeges lol jk not privat pics but plllllllllllllllleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaasssssssssssssseeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee help me get on to my facebook or make me a new hotmail.com n facebook.com yhank you if you find it


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