What are internet cookies?

What is a Cookie?

Internet cookies are small pieces of information in text format that are downloaded to your computer whenyou visit Web sites. The cookie may come from the Web site itself or from the providers of the advertisingbanners or other graphics that make up a Web page.
Thus visiting a single Web site can actually result in the downloading of multiple cookies, each from adifferent source. You may never actually visit a page of one of the major advertising agencies likeDoubleclick.com but you will still get cookies from them.

Cookies typically contain some kind of ID number, a domain that the cookie is valid for, and an expirationdate which can be many years into the future. They may also contain other tracking information such as login names and pages visited. Since they arein clear text format, they can be read with a regular text editor such as Notepad although the contents maynot necessarily seem to make a lot of sense.

There are a number of cookie viewers available, which will also give some information about the meaning ofthe content. A good freeware program is Karen’s Cookie Viewer.

(http://www.karenware.com/powertools/ptcookie.asp)

The cookie viewer will also show you the location of the cookie files and allow you to delete those you nolonger want to keep.  Be caerful as this might mean that you will have to resign into web sites which haveautomatic sign in activated. Make sure you know the user name and password for each of the web sites youvisit before deleting cookies.

What are Cookies for?

They are necessary to provide the function of “persistence”. As soon as the information that your browserrequests from a site is downloaded to your computer, the connection is dropped. If you return to the site aminute later (or whenever), the site has no knowledge that you were just there. If a site has several pagesand you go from one to the other the site does not remember which pages you have been to. That is, it won’t unless a cookie is on your machine to remind the site and provide continuity.

There are many reasons a given site would wish to use cookies. These range from the ability topersonalize information (like on My Yahoo or Excite), or to help with on-line sales/services (like on AmazonBooks or eBay), or simply for the purposes of collecting demographic information (like DoubleClick).

Cookies also provide programmers with a quick and convenient means of keeping site content fresh and relevant to the user’s interests. The newest servers use cookies to help with back-end interaction as well, which can improve the utility of a site by being able to securely store any personal data that the user has shared with a site (to help with quick logins on your favorite sites, for example).

Although some cookies provide a useful function, many others may not be desirable. As the Internet has evolved from its beginnings in academia and government to a commercial enterprise, cookies have inevitably been turned into a tracking mechanism used by advertisers. In principle, cookies are only accessible to the site that originated them but large advertising agencies with many clients can easily circumvent this restriction by collecting information for all their clients under one domain.

A fairly harmless (and perhaps even useful) advertising application of cookies is to rotate banner ads as you go from page to page to make sure that you do not see the same ads over and over.

However, there are more invasive tracking methods that might involve cookies and therein arise privacy issues.

Many PC users do nothing to manage cookies and simply accept whatever comes their way. This policy ofneglect had more to recommend it back when cookie management was fairly arduous and time-consuming. Today, however, the obstacles to cookie management are low enough that at least some form of basic management should be a standard practice.

There are several reasons why a PC user might consider exerting a little effort in this area. First, the volume of cookies sent out these days is so large that a computer will rapidly acquire hundreds of cookies.

It isn’t unusual for me to pick up 30 or 40 in a single hour of browsing. Some of these cookies are useful but most are tracking cookies from advertisers. Simply from disk housekeeping considerations, you might want to keep the number down. A more serious consideration for many is the possible privacy issues that arise from the tracking cookies. Controlling cookies isn’t that difficult and here are some methods.

* In theory you can simply refuse all cookies. All standard browsers allow for this option. However, this is not a very practical solution. Too many sites use cookies for useful or benign purposes. Also many sites require cookies to be enabled before they let you view them.
* A better alternative is to selectively block and/or remove undesirable cookies while keeping goodones. There are a number of approaches.
o One way is by do-it-yourself methods involving such things as editing the actual contents of the cookie folder. This is tedious and there are better ways.
o The major browsers have added ways of selectively configuring for cookies. For example, InternetExplorer has Privacy settings with a number of cookie options. Among the options is th e ability to list specific sites whose cookies are to be rejected. This gives a PC user the option of refusing cookies from certain advertising agencies such as DoubleClick that use aggressive tracking methods.

The Firefox browser has even more cookie control in its setting Tools-Options-Privacy

The other option is to use another free program called CCleaner.  This has the ability to delete all but selected cookies.

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