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What are cookies in computers?
Also known as browser cookies or tracking cookies, cookies are small, often encrypted text files, located in browser directories. They are used by web developers to help users navigate their websites efficiently and perform certain functions. Due to their core role of enhancing/enabling usability or site processes, disabling cookies may prevent users from using certain websites.
Cookies are created when a user's browser loads a particular website. The website sends information to the browser which then creates a text file. Every time the user goes back to the same website, the browser retrieves and sends this file to the website's server. Computer Cookies are created not just by the website the user is browsing but also by other websites that run ads, widgets, or other elements on the page being loaded. These cookies regulate how the ads appear or how the widgets and other elements function on the page.
Standard uses for browser cookies
Website servers set cookies to help authenticate the user if the user logs in to a secure area of the website. Login information is stored in a cookie so the user can enter and leave the website without having to re-enter the same authentication information over and over.
Session Cookies are also used by the server to store information about user page activities so users can easily pick up where they left off on the server's pages. By default, web pages really don't have any 'memory'. Cookies tell the server what pages to show the user so the user doesn't have to remember or start navigating the site all over again. Cookies act as a sort of “bookmark” within the site. Similarly, cookies can store ordering information needed to make shopping carts work instead of forcing the user to remember all the items the user put in the shopping cart.
Session cookies allow users to be recognized within a website so any page changes or item or data selection you do is remembered from page to page. The most common example of this functionality is the shopping cart feature of any e-commerce site. When you visit one page of a catalog and select some items, the session cookie remembers your selection so your shopping cart will have the items you selected when you are ready to check out. Without session cookies, if you click CHECKOUT, the new page does not recognize your past activities on prior pages and your shopping cart will always be empty.
You can adjust your session cookies through the settings feature of your browser.
Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next. Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
Websites typically use session cookies to ensure that you are recognised when you move from page to page within one site and that any information you have entered is remembered. For example, if an e-commerce site did not use session cookies then items placed in a shopping basket would disappear by the time you reach the checkout. You can choose to accept session cookies by changing the settings in your browser.
Persistent or tracking Cookies are also employed to store user preferences. Many websites allow the user to customize how information is presented through site layouts or themes. These changes make the site easier to navigate and/or lets user leave a part of the user's “personality” at the site. For Information on session and persistent and tracking cookies, see here.
Persistent cookies help websites remember your information and settings when you visit them in the future. This result in faster and more convenient access since, for example, you don't have to login again.
Besides authentication, other website features made possible by persistent cookies include: language selection, theme selection, menu preferences, internal site bookmarks or favorites, among many others. On your first visit, the website is presented in default mode. During your visit, you select your preferences and these preferences are remembered, through the use of the persistent cookie, the next time you visit the site.
A persistent cookie enables a website to remember you on subsequent visits, speeding up or enhancing your experience of services or functions offered.
For example, a website may offer its contents in different languages. On your first visit, you may choose to have the content delivered in French and the site may record that preference in a persistent cookie set on your browser. When you revisit that site it will use the cookie to ensure that the content is delivered in French.
Cookie security and privacy issues
Cookies are NOT viruses. Cookies use a plain text format. They are not compiled pieces of code so they cannot be executed nor are they self-executing. Accordingly, they cannot make copies of themselves and spread to other networks to execute and replicate again. Since they cannot perform these functions, they fall outside the standard virus definition.
Cookies CAN be used for malicious purposes though. Since they store information about a user's browsing preferences and history, both on a specific site and browsing among several sites, cookies can be used to act as a form of spyware. Many anti-spyware products are well aware of this problem and routinely flag cookies as candidates for deletion after standard virus and/or spyware scans. See here for some privacy issues and concerns.
The way responsible and ethical web developers deal with privacy issues caused by cookie tracking is by including clear descriptions of how cookies are deployed on their site.
These privacy policies should explain what kind of information is collected and how the information is used.
Most browsers have built in privacy settings that provide differing levels of cookie acceptance, expiration time, and disposal after a user has visited a particular site. Backing up your computer can give you the peace of mind that your files are safe.
Rather than the "Opt out" option for website visitors, websites will need to specifically gain the consent of their visitor and they must "Opt In" to be able to store cookies on their computer or other devices.This is expected to be difficult to manage and enforcement will more than likely be done subtlely and with encouragement rather than with the threat of fines and penaltys.
The new requirement is essentially that cookies can only be placed on machines where the user or subscriber has given their consent.
Key tips for safe and responsible cookie-based Web browsing
If you are very comfortable with cookies and you are the only person using your computer, you may want to set long expiration time frames for storing your personal access information and browsing history.
If you share access on your computer, you may want to set your browser to clear private browsing data every time you close your browser. While not as secure as rejecting cookies outright, this option lets you access cookie-based websites while deleting any sensitive information after your browsing session.
Install and keep antispyware applications updated
Many spyware detection, cleanup applications, and spyware removers include attack site detection. They block your browser from accessing websites designed to exploit browser vulnerabilities or download malicious software.
Make sure your browser is updated
If you haven't already, set your browser to update automatically. This eliminates security vulnerabilities caused by outdated browsers. Many cookie-based exploits are based on exploiting older browsers' security shortcomings.
Cookies are everywhere and can't really be avoided if you wish to enjoy the biggest and best websites out there. With a clear understanding of how they operate and how they help your browsing experience, you can take the necessary security measures to ensure that you browse the Net confidently.