A Closer Look At Cookies
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.
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.
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?
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 3 Apr 2012
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- A Closer Look At Cookies (Posted: 3 Apr 2012)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved