All about cookies

Web cookies are data files used by advertisers and websites that are stored in a computer for tracking purposes. Cookies pose no danger to a computer, but many people consider them invasive to privacy because they track users’ browsing behaviors. Cookies are designed to save users’ browsing preferences. For example, if you leave a website and wish to return to it later and resume your session, cookies make it easy for you to do this by redirecting you to the website without the need for you to enter your log in information again.

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What are the functions of cookies?

Cookies are placed in the hard drive of a computer by a web page server. Contrary to what most people think, they cannot be used to deliver a virus or to implement a code. Each cookie is unique and can only be read by the web server that installed it. Its primary function is to help a website to automatically identify users. When you browse a website, cookies associated with the website are saved on your computer. This is how cookies store various URLs.

Normally, tracking cookies are beneficial to users because they collect information on users’ browsing habits and save their preferences. For example, cookies on a shopping website gather information about online shopping behaviors and recommend similar products on alternative websites. Through cookies such sites can remind you of items you recently showed interest in or purchased and show you similar items o the same or different website. Most tracking cookies are used in online advertisements and often produce pop up messages when users browse on certain websites. Cookies often do not produce the same pop up advertisement repeatedly. Instead, they produce different ads related to users’ preferences.

Because most spyware and viruses come in form of adverts, people often mistrust cookies. Remember, cookies are not spyware, viruses, or harmful applications and cannot monitor your offline activities. They only collect information that identifies surfing habits and your computer, something that is somewhat a concern to those who prefer private browsing. The main concern is that a tracking cookie might save and collect private information from the websites you visit that you would not want others to know. If you share a computer with others and maybe you were looking up information about depression or drug abuse, then someone else using the computer afterwards can comes across the websites you were browsing. They might assume that you have a drug problem when all you were doing is researching for a school paper. In most cases, cookies are used to study general trends and not users’ characters. However, some of the data collected by cookies may be used for malicious purposes.

Types of cookies

There are three types of cookies: session cookies, permanent cookies and third-party cookies.

Session cookies

These cookies are usually deleted when you close your browser. For instance, shopping sites, like Amazon, may use these type of cookies so that items and products you have added to your shopping cart stays there while you browse different products. This type of cookie is also known as  an in-memory cookie or transient cookie.

Permanent cookies

A permanent cookie, also known as a persistent cookie, is not deleted even after you close your browser. First party cookies are related to websites you frequently visit and are often used to track users’ preferences. This type of cookies makes it possible for you to log in to websites multiple times without having to enter login details every time you want to login. First party cookies are designed to save users’ browsing histories and preferences. In addition, they help customize users’ browsing experiences.

Third-party cookies

When browsing a website with third party cookies, the cookies are designed by another website and not the website you are browsing. As the name suggests, third party cookies are made by third party websites. Such cookies track the websites you visit and offer insights on similar products and services on different websites. They use your browsing data to deliver pop up ads and similar advertising messages. Some third party cookies produce pop up messages that direct users to alternate websites. Advertisers often use third party cookies to track the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns.

Can cookies be blocked?

There are anti-spyware applications that can be used to block cookies and suspicious programs. Many people use these applications to block cookies because they are concerned about the effects of cookies on their privacy. However, unlike viruses and malware, cookies are quite harmless. Most web browsers (Internet Explorer, Chrome, Mozilla, Safari etc.) let users block cookies.

Unlike the common misconception, cookies are not viruses or harmful applications. They are designed to save users’ browsing histories and preferences. However, people who are concerned about the effects of cookies on their privacy can use private browsing.

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