What are Cookies?

Cookies are desserts usually made of flour, eggs, sugar, and butter, and often have raisins or chocolate... oh, wait.  You want to know about Internet cookies.  Sorry, our mistake.

What are Internet cookies?

In computer terms, a "cookie" is a small computer file that a website sends through your web browser to your computer.  It serves as a sort of reminder of what you've done on that website.  This could include whether you're logged in or not, what hyperlinks you've clicked, or what items have been added to your online shopping cart (if you're using a shopping website).

Are cookies good or bad?

That depends on what they do.  Some examples of their jobs are listed below.

Authentication cookies

These cookies are very useful, and actually work to keep your privacy secure on the Internet.  For example, many websites that require you to log into an account will send you a cookie.  This helps to keep track of whether you're logged into the website or not, and which account you are logged into the website with. 

Without these kinds of cookies, people could log into any account for a website that they wanted, or even use a different account while its real owner was logged in.  This could allow them to trick the website into revealing sensitive information about another person.

Convenience cookies

Some cookies simply exist to make a website more useful or easier to use.  For example, some cookies may remember certain information that you've previously entered into the website.  This may include your user name or email address, and perhaps even your password.  This makes it easy to log back into your account if you log out and then come back to the website later.

Other cookies may remember preferences that you've selected or other information that you've entered.  This can help you avoid having to re-adjust your settings every time you visit a website, or re-type certain information that you use all the time (such as personal details or things that you've searched for).

While these types of cookies make it much easier to use a website, some of them can reveal information about what you do on the Internet, including potentially some personal information.

Tracking cookies

These are the types of cookies that most often get on people's nerves.  They contain information about how you use certain websites, including actions that you take and hyperlinks that you click.  That information is then accessed by advertisers in order to show you ads that they think are relevant to what you want.

This is a largely harmless practice, and some people find it useful for learning about products and services that interest them that they wouldn't have otherwise known about.  For many others, however, these cookies are irritating at best and disturbingly privacy-intrusive at worst. 

In fact, there are certain computer programs and web browser add-ons that are dedicated to identifying and blocking these types of cookies.  There are even some antivirus programs that classify tracking cookies as security threats, and delete them as if they were viruses (though, thankfully, cookies can never carry or become infected by actual viruses).

When should I enable, disable, or remove cookies?

While it may be tempting to disable cookies, the fact is that certain websites (especially ones that require you to log in to use them) won't work or be easy to use without them.  Therefore, you should probably keep cookies enabled, but clear them out (along with your cache and browser history) every once in a while to give yourself a clean slate.

Another option, which we hinted at, is that you may also be able to manage what kinds of cookies you get with certain programs or web browser settings/add-ons.  That way, you can keep the cookies that are necessary for websites to function while blocking cookies from advertisers who want to snoop on your web activities.

We'll go over how to clear, enable, and disable cookies in our next tutorials, and go into a bit more detail when we cover how to stay private while using specific web browsers.


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