What is a Cookie? Understanding How Websites Track Your Online Activity

What Is a Cookie? Exploring How Websites Track Your Digital Footprint

Final: What Is a Cookie?

A cookie, also known as an HTTP, internet, browser, or website cookie, is a small piece of data stored on your device to help websites remember your preferences and personalize your browsing experience. It can store information such as your login credentials, shopping cart items, and website preferences, making accessing these on your subsequent visits easier.

 

Key Highlights

  • A cookie is a tiny file saved on your computer by a website to remember your preferences and authenticate your identity for a smoother browsing experience
  • Attackers can exploit cookies to access a user’s sensitive information, browsing history, and locked accounts
  • Knowing the different types of cookies is essential to make informed decisions about how websites use your personal data

 

What Is a Cookie?

When you visit a website, you might encounter a notification asking you to accept cookies. These are data files that store information like your login details and preferences in your browser. They help websites recognize you when you return, which makes your browsing experience more personalized and convenient.

You can see cookies in action when you shop online, and items stay in your cart from a previous visit or when a website auto-fills your username and password. These little helpers streamline and tailor your online experience.

 

How Does a Cookie Work?

A cookie helps your browser and websites communicate smoothly. Since browsers and websites “forget” each other after every message, it works like memory aids. It connects all the messages, ensuring websites remember you as you browse. Here’s how it works:

  • A website sends your browser a cookie with a unique ID when you first visit
  • Your browser stores the cookie on your device
  • Your browser sends the unique ID back to the site every time you interact with the website
  • The website recognizes the unique ID, remembers you, and keeps track of your actions

 

What Is a Cookie Used For?

Cookies make your internet experience smoother by remembering your preferences. They help websites load with your favorite settings and do various tasks, such as:

  • Auto-fill forms with your information
  • Save items in a shopping cart
  • Remember the settings you’ve turned on
  • Monitor your interaction with ads
  • Show tailored ads
  • Suggest personalized content
  • Keep track of viewed items in online stores
  • Set your language preference
  • Confirm your identity
  • Prevent fraud

Final: What Is a Cookie?

 

The History of the Cookie

Cookies were invented by Netscape Communications programmer Lou Montulli in 1994 to help people store items in online shopping carts. This was the first time a website’s data could be saved on a user’s computer. A year later, cookies were integrated into Internet Explorer.

Users eventually began to express concerns about the potential misuse of cookies and online privacy, even though cookies weren’t used for advertising at the time. These concerns marked the beginning of a conversation about consumer privacy on the internet that continues today.

 

What Are the Types of Cookies?

Cookies have different types, and each tracks specific online behavior. Understanding them helps you decide which cookies to allow when a website requests your preference. Let’s explore the types of cookies and their purposes:

1. First-Party and Third-Party Cookies

Have you ever wondered how some websites remember your login information or shopping cart contents even when you return after a while? That’s because of cookies, which come in different types, like first-party and third-party cookies.

First-party cookies are set by the website you’re visiting and are used to improve your experience. On the other hand, third-party cookies come from other sources, like ads or embedded videos. These are often used for tracking your online behavior.

Tip
Tip:​​ To keep your online activities private, consider blocking third-party cookies on your browser. This will let you have a seamless browsing experience without sacrificing your privacy. But if you don’t mind seeing personalized ads, allowing third-party cookies may be a better option.

2. Session Cookies

Session cookies, also called per-session or transient cookies, help websites remember your preferences while you browse. They let you add items to your shopping cart and browse other pages while keeping track of your cart contents. They’re deleted once you close your browser or log out of a website.

3. Persistent Cookies

Persistent cookies are often used to track your browsing history and preferences, so websites can suggest things you might like. Unlike session cookies, they have an expiration date and can stay on your browser for days, months, or even years.

Note
Note: Persistent cookies can be used for advertising purposes and might collect more data about you than you’re comfortable with. If you’re concerned about your online privacy, consider regularly deleting your persistent cookies or adjusting your browser settings to block them.

Final: What Is a Cookie?

2. Authentication Cookies

Authentication cookies are sent to your browser by websites once you log in to help you stay logged into your account. These cookies hold your user account information and ensure that you get accurate data when browsing. This type of cookie provides a smooth user experience by preventing you from having to frequently log in every time you visit a website.

5. Supercookies

Supercookies, zombie cookies, or evercookies can recreate user-profiles and regenerate even after they’ve been deleted, making them difficult to detect and remove. This type of tracking cookie is often used by shady advertisers or cyber attackers. It poses privacy concerns, so many web browsers now have settings that let you block or limit them.

6. Essential Cookies

Essential cookies are cookies necessary to run the website or provide a requested service. Using only these cookies during your browsing experience will allow you to eliminate third-party cookies that may be used to track your online behavior and collect personal data.

7. Flash Cookies

Flash cookies, also known as local shared objects (LSOs), are files that store information on your computer used by websites that utilize Adobe® Flash® technology. Similar to browser cookies, this type of cookie can hold user information for Flash applications.

8. Advertising Cookies

Advertising cookies or targeting cookies track your online activity and create a profile of your interests. For instance, if you’ve recently been browsing for a new phone online, these cookies might track that activity and show you ads for phones.

9. Performance Cookies

Performance cookies are used to enhance website performance and improve user experience by tracking online activity. They collect data such as how long a user spent on a page or how often they visited a website.

10. Functionality Cookies

Functionality cookies are essential for using the basic features of a website, such as setting your preferred language or viewing local news. They enhance a website’s performance and functionality. Some site features may not work properly without them.

Final: What Is a Cookie?

 

The Disadvantages of Allowing Cookies on Websites

Cookies can help improve website functionality and personalize the user experience, but they also come with some potential downsides. Here are some disadvantages of using cookies on websites:

1. Security and Privacy Concerns

Cookies pose serious security risks since they’re stored as text files on the hard drive. This means anyone accessing the computer can view the information stored in the cookies.

Cybercriminals can also exploit cookies for their malicious schemes and use them for hacking. In 2011, a zero-day bug was exploited by hackers to hijack session cookies using social engineering tactics.

2. Tracking by Unknown Third-Party Sites

Third-party cookies can be placed on your computer by websites you haven’t visited, which can gather information about you, such as your browsing habits, interests, and spending habits. This data is used for targeted advertising and may be shared with unknown groups or websites.

3. Storage

Cookies accumulate and can take up storage space as you browse the web, which may cause your browser to run slower or your system to hang up if storage space is limited. To avoid this, you can clear the cache and delete cookies either manually or automatically when you exit the browser.

 

How to Protect Your Privacy and Security When Using Cookies

Final: What Is a Cookie?

Cookies are not inherently harmful but can be used to access your browsing history and locked accounts. Here are some tips to enhance your browsing experience and safeguard your personal information:

1. Turn Off Autofill Features

Autofill features can make it easier for criminals to extract your data with cookie hijacking, so it’s best to disable them. Instead, use a password manager to securely store your passwords. This will help keep your personal data safe, even if your cookies are compromised.

2. Use a VPN

If you’re using cookies and browsing on public Wi-Fi, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for your safety and peace of mind. This adds an extra layer of security by creating an encrypted tunnel that masks your IP address and helps keep your online activity private.

3. Clear Cookies Regularly

Clearing your cookie cache regularly can prevent slow search speeds caused by cookie overload. You can disable cookies altogether in your browser’s settings if you prefer not to use them. This can reduce the amount of personal information that websites and advertisers store and share.

4. Utilize Secure Connections and Browser Extensions

Using HTTPS connections can protect your cookie information from being intercepted by attackers, so it’s best to use them when accessing websites and services. You can also install browser extensions that block trackers and third-party cookies to further enhance your online privacy and security.

5. Read Privacy Policies of Websites

Many people tend to agree to terms of service without reading them. In fact, a survey showed that only one person out of 100 reads the agreement carefully enough to realize they were agreeing to ridiculous requests.

It may seem daunting to read privacy policies, but it’s essential to understand what types of information websites and services collect and how they use them. You can use tools like Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (ToS;DR) to understand the policies without going through long walls of text. Taking the time to read and understand the policies can help you make informed decisions about what services to use and how to protect your privacy.

 

Conclusion

A cookie is a small file that websites store on your computer to personalize your browsing experience. This guide has covered what a cookie is, its history, its types, and how to protect your privacy and security when using them.

While they help make the internet run efficiently, not all cookies are essential, and some can pose security risks. It’s important to take steps to protect your online privacy, such as deleting cookies regularly, turning off auto-fill features, and reading privacy policies. By following these tips, you can enjoy the benefits of cookies while safeguarding your personal information online.

 

Next Steps: What Now?

 

Further Reading (Useful Resources)

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is it called a “Cookie?”

A magic cookie is a way for data to be sent within a program in Unix programming. The term “cookie” was coined in the early 1990s when someone thought of using cookies to save data. The term “magic” refers to how it can carry data like a fortune cookie carries a message.

Why do websites ask you to accept Cookies?

Websites are required by the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to ask for your permission and inform you about how they use cookies. This is why you may see more pop-ups asking you to accept cookies when visiting websites.

What happens if you don’t accept Cookies?

Cookies are essential for websites to remember your preferences and personalize your browsing experience. If you don’t accept cookies, some websites may not function correctly. You may also have to repeatedly log in each time you visit.

How do you delete Cookies from your browser?

Deleting cookies from your browser is relatively simple. First, click on the three dots in your browser’s upper right-hand corner. Then, look for an option labeled “Settings” or “Options.” Next, scroll down to “Privacy and Security” and find the option to clear cookies. Finally, click the button to clear cookies and confirm the action if necessary.

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