What Are Computer Cookies?

What Are Computer Cookies? – A Definition

A cookie isn’t always found in a jar — in the world of computers, cookies are small text files with unique ID tags. These files are placed on your computer when you visit certain websites. What is the point of a computer cookie? A website places a cookie in order to “track” your activity on that site. Information about you is stored in the website’s matching cookie file about your online activity — information like pages you visit online to forms you fill out at other websites. Websites use cookies to identify you as someone who has visited the site before. A cookie is part marketing tool, part ID feature.

What Are Temporary Cookies? What Are Permanent Cookies?

In computer terms, cookies come in just two flavors — temporary and permanent. Temporary cookies, also called session cookies or temp cookies, are only stored for a specific amount of time in your web browser’s memory banks, and are usually deleted when you end a browsing session. At the other end of the scale are permanent cookies, known also as persistent cookies. These are stored permanently on your computer’s hard drive and, even when you delete them, they can regenerate themselves the next time you visit the site that originated the cookie.

What Are Cookies Used For? The Purpose of Computer Cookies

What Are Computer Cookies?

Cookies take the place of the old-fashioned store manager — the guy who knew the kind of beer you wanted or the way you preferred to pay in cash. Websites don’t have the luxury of the eagle eye manager, so they use cookies to keep track of your habits. They are also necessary parts of the interactive Web experience — when you submit information on a form (to register for a site, for instance) the site uses cookies to attach that information to you for the duration of your visit. Without cookies, you’d need to enter your registration information on every page of the website, or every time you created a new connection with that website. Cookies hold information about you that a website needs either for retail purposes or just to create a relationship with you.

The first files that took care of the registration problem were called “temporary cookies”, and they used a tiny bit of browser memory to save information about a visitor to their websites. This didn’t allow for recognition of returning customers, and certainly couldn’t save enough information for long enough time to function the way websites needed.

Persistent cookies allow a website to recognize a customer permanently by assigning a unique ID tag to the visitor’s hard drive. With permanent cookies, your web browser is “recognizable.”

The many functions of cookies can’t be laid out here in full, but rest assured that everything from automated login, Web preferences, and shopping carts are examples of how cookies can be put to good use.

The Dark Side of Cookies

The worst thing to come out of computer cookies is Web profiling. Websites started to use persistent cookies to keep track of the habits of their users all over the Internet, not just on their site. Cookies were used for evil purposes first for Internet advertising purposes — advertisers bought ad rights on thousands of popular websites and combined their Web customer’s profiles from multiple sites to create a “profile” of that person. These profiles made it really easy for advertisers to “target” advertising to people on the Internet. Cookies are responsible for the eerily pertinent ads you see on Facebook and Gmail, for instance.

Cookies have been used to create massive profiles of people’s Web surfing habits over years and years of web surfing history. Profiling programs were then created to sort this massive amount of information into target areas based on statistical data and a million other factors created by eggheads to sell you junk. Your gender, race, age, income level, political stance, religion, geography, marital status, number of pets, and even your sexual orientation can be charted, mapped, and appealed to using cookie profiling. Though it may not seem evil at first glance — imagine if “real world” companies followed you around, wrote down your activities, who you talked to, etc. in order to better sell you Tide laundry detergent or Folger’s coffee.

Cookie Backlash

This cookie profiling activity did not go unnoticed, and when people found out what was being done with persistent cookies, they demanded a way to opt out of this system.

Now, every web browser has special cookie controls to help you control cookie activity on the Internet. Users can now turn cookies completely off if they choose, and though not being able to use the good things about cookies must be inconvenient, at least you have an option when it comes to cookie profiling. Permanent cookies technology was first used in 1995, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that people started to protest. Now, we have better control over cookies.

How Can I Protect Myself from Computer Cookies? Computer Cookie Cleanup

There are three easy steps you can take to get rid of unwanted computer cookies.

1. Delete cookies as often as you use the Internet. Open your ‘Internet Options’ file or choose ‘Delete History’ in your Internet browser and choose the ‘delete cookies’ option as well, every time you use the Internet. All cookie text files will be wiped off your hard drive. Sure, a website will just create a new cookie for you the next time you visit, but if you clear the history and cookies each time, you can keep them from accumulating information about your Web usage.

2. Turn off cookies on your Internet browser. This prevents automatic login to email and other websites, and it can cause problems logging in to other websites, but it is the only way to maintain complete privacy while you are online.

3. Use secure websites. Simply visiting more secure websites or shopping at big name retailers can keep you out of a lot of cookie nightmares. There are many websites that don’t use cookies (read their Terms of Service), or use search engines that are cookie-free. If you really care about your Internet-anonymity, switching to a different family of websites should be no big deal.

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