Mention “cookies” and most people expect a chocolate chip treat to appear. When talking about computers, however, cookies aren’t on the drop-down menu. In fact, they’re not even physical objects. Yet they do a great deal of the work that makes it more convenient for you to browse the Internet — and they can be troublesome if you don’t know how to clear or delete cookies.
A computer “cookie” is more formally known as an HTTP cookie, a web cookie, an Internet cookie or a browser cookie. The name is a shorter version of “magic cookie,” which is a term for a packet of data that a computer receives and then sends back without changing or altering it. No matter what it’s called, a computer cookie consists of information. When you visit a website, the website sends the cookie to your computer. Your computer stores it in a file located inside your web browser. (To help you find it, this file is often called “Cookies.”)
There are different explanations for where cookies got their name. Some people believe that cookies got their name from “magic cookies” which are part of UNIX, an operating system. Many people believe that the name originates from the story of Hansel and Gretel, who were able to mark their trail through a dark forest by dropping cookie crumbs behind them.
Are Computer Cookies Dangerous?
The easiest answer is that cookies, in and of themselves, are completely harmless. However, some websites and search engines use them to track users as they browse the web, collecting highly personal information and often surreptitiously transferring that information to other websites without permission or warning. This is why we often hear about web cookies in the news.
Can Cookies Be Used To Spy On Me?
Cookies are simple text files that cannot execute programs or carry out tasks. Nor can they be used to view data on your hard disk, or capture other information from your computer. Furthermore, cookies can only be accessed by the server that initiated them. This makes it impossible for one web server to snoop around in cookies set by other servers, grabbing sensitive bits of your personal information. Although cookies can only be retrieved by the server that set them, many online advertisement companies attach cookies containing a unique user ID to banner ads. Many of the major ad companies online serve ads to thousands of different websites, so they can retrieve their cookies from all of these sites, too. Though the site that carries the ad can’t track your progress through the web, the company that serves the ads can.
This may sound ominous, but tracking your progress online isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. When tracking is used within a site, the data can help site owners tweak their designs, enhancing popular areas and eliminating or redesigning “dead ends” for a more efficient user experience. Tracking data can also be used to give users and site owners more targeted information or to make recommendations on purchases, content, or services to users, a feature many users appreciate. For example, one of Amazon.com’s most popular retail features is the targeted recommendations it makes for new merchandise based on your past viewing and purchase history.
Where to look to enable or delete cookies
Here’s how to find and manage your cookies in order to protect your privacy online:
- Find where cookies are stored. Each browser manages cookies in a different location. For example, in Internet Explorer, you can find them by clicking “Tools” and then “Internet Options.” From there, select “General” and “Browsing history” and “Settings.” In Chrome, choose “Preferences” from the Chrome menu in the navigation bar, which will display your settings. Then expand the “Advanced” option to display “Privacy and security.” From there, open “Content settings” and “Cookies.”
- Manage your cookies. Every browser gives you a range of options for enabling or deleting cookies. Internet Explorer, for instance, allows you to manage cookies under “Privacy” and “Advanced.” In Chrome, find where cookies are stored as outlined above, then select your management options under “Cookies.”
Banning all browser cookies could make some websites difficult to navigate. However, a setting that controls or limits third-party and tracking cookies can help protect your privacy while still making it possible to shop online and carry out similar activities.
Cookies, small text files containing very small amounts of data, were originally designed to make life easier for Web searchers. Popular sites such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook use them to deliver highly customized, personal web pages that deliver targeted content to users.
Unfortunately, some websites and internet advertisers have found other uses for cookies. They can and do gather sensitive personal information that might be used to profile users with advertisements that seem almost intrusive with how targeted they are.
Cookies do offer quite a few very useful benefits that make Web browsing very convenient. On the other hand, you might be concerned that your privacy has the potential to be violated. However, this isn’t something that web users should necessarily be concerned about. Cookies are absolutely harmless.