Computer Cookies: Are They Good or Bad?

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Explaining “Cookies” (the non caloric ones that reside in your computer!)

You can’t talk about all those nasty ‘things’ that can ‘attack’ your computer while you are surfing the Internet, like viruses or spyware, without talking about ‘Cookies’. But what are they and are they really bad for my computer?

Ok, first let’s define the term, and then we’ll explain the good and the bad about it.

Cookie(s):

A small data (text and numbers) file (piece of information) created by a Web server (large computer that stores web sites) that is stored on your computer either temporarily for that session only (the time that you spend on a web site) or permanently on the hard disk (persistent cookie). Cookies provide a way for the Web site that you visit and go back to visit again, to identify users and keep track of their preferences. Amazon and Barnes and Noble online are very creative in the use of their cookies that get generated when you visit.

Here’s an example from my computer from visiting the Disney.com website:

CP null*disneyworld.disney.go.com/1088 1761935360 30785590 403215680 29726670*

Notice that the only thing in that string of text and numbers that you can recognize is the name of the website. The rest of the information is simply a set of numbers that only a computer can understand.

Why are cookies important to you? Well, you would not be able to browse through the Web as you are currently used to if you had cookies restricted on your computer.

The Good “Cookies” (non calorie type)

Cookies are commonly used to “maintain the state” (the current or last-known status) of the session (time that you spend on a site) as a user browses around on the site. For example, if you filled out a form and decided to leave that for a moment to view another page, when you come back to that form, the information that you already filled in would still be there. Without cookies, the site would not know who you were.

On the 2 web sites that I mentioned, Amazon and Barnes and Noble, they both use a combination of cookies and online database to recognize you when you return to the site as well as “remember” your earlier choices and from those choices recommend possible book or music choices for you on your current visit.

Imagine, if you will, walking into a local Barnes and Noble store where a clerk immediately recognizes you, walks up to you as she calls you by name and walks you over to your own table of books and music. You see that they have put all of your favorite kinds of books and musicians on the table, both new and old works, all laid out for your quick viewing pleasure!

And, on the next table, is a sign saying “Other people who bought these items also purchased these items” so that you may find interesting items that you may never have seen but might find interesting. Wouldn’t that make shopping a great experience?

Well, that is exactly what it is like to shop online with a sophisticated shopping web site like Barnes and Noble and Amazon! And it’s only because of cookies remembering who you are that allows this type of service to occur.

The Bad Side of Cookies

Actually, as you have just seen, cookies on your computer are not a bad thing; it’s just that the information that they contain can be quite enticing to unscrupulous people. Quite a bit of personal data may reside in the cookie files in your computer, such as ID and Password information. As a result, this storehouse of private information is sometimes the object of attack, which is what happens with some types of spyware.

The default (Default refers to a value automatically assigned to a computer program or device), settings in your Web browser typically allow “first-party” cookies that do not contain any personal information, but not “third-party” cookies.

First-party cookies are ones that are created by the Web site you are visiting. Third-party cookies are created by a Web site other than the one you are currently visiting; for example, by a third-party advertiser on that site (pop-up or banner). The purpose of such cookies is usually to track your surfing habits, which is why third-party cookies are considered an invasion of privacy and riskier than first-party cookies. In some instances cookies are used to consolidate and track user behavior across different sites, which provide marketers with private information about you without your knowledge. These are what are referred to as Tracking Cookies.

Aha, now we’re getting somewhere!

Because, a Tracking Cookie is a somewhat new term for a cookie that has been design by the above mentioned ‘unscrupulous’ people that do business on the Web. It is part of the unfortunate phenomenon known as Spyware! But, that’s a topic for another whole article!

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