Cookies, Friend or Foe?

Unfortunately for Cookie Monster, and anyone else who thought this post was going to be about how to make a killer chocolate chip cookie, we’re talking about internet cookies.

What’s the difference? Apparently a lot.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, internet cookies are “small text files that some websites place on your computer.” These text files are meant to gather information about what you do on a particular website as well as other what other websites you choose to visit. The internet cookie then transmits this information back to the website that put the cookie on your computer in the first place.

Feeling uneasy about Internet cookies?

You shouldn’t. Like the chocolate chip variety, most internet cookies aren’t intended to be malicious. Consider them as the first steps to personalization. When Gmail automatically logs you in, or Amazon keeps track of your shopping cart, or Google remembers your search history, that’s all cookies at work. Since web servers themselves have no memory, the cookies need to be there to make the personalization changes that people have grown accustom to.

There are two types of cookies: session cookies and persistent cookies. Session cookies are only active during the session in which they are placed. That means if you close your browser window, or end your session, the cookie on your computer will be erased. More often that not, these cookies are only used to to make navigation easier, so the information they gather is for aggregate data on how people use the site.

Persistent cookies are used more for identifiable information. Also called multi-session cookies, these cookies stay on your computer even after you’ve closed the browser. They’re meant to stay on your hard drive and gather your website preferences and behaviors. These cookies are responsible for things like automatic logins and other types of similar behaviors. Now, they don’t do this forever, because persistent cookies do have an expiration date. If you still feel funny about having cookies on you computer though, you do have an option to delete them from your internet cache.

While these types of cookies seem innocuous enough, there are still evil-natured cookies out there. Those are the cookies that try to stay on your hard drive long enough to make a profile of your internet interests so the cookie creators can sell you to the highest advertising bidder. Sounds scary, but keep in mind that while cookies do gather information about you, it’s only the information that you willingly put online. No cookie can look through your computer for documents and other private information you may have.

Just in case this information doesn’t assuage your fears, there are some ways to do a cookie purge for your computer. The ways that follow come courtesy of

  • One way is by do-it-yourself methods involving such things as editing the actual contents of the IE cookie folder. This is tedious and there are better ways.
  • The major browsers have added ways of selectively configuring for cookies. For example, Internet Explorer 6 has Privacy settings with a number of cookie options. Among the options is the ability to list specific sites whose cookies are to be rejected. This gives a PC user the option of refusing cookies from certain advertising agencies such as DoubleClick that use aggressive tracking methods. Details for IE are in this tutorial. The Firefox browser has even more cookie control in its setting Tools-Options-Privacy (more details on this page.)
  • There is a whole assortment of Internet security software, some free, some commercial, that include cookie management. Two free programs are this script and Karen Kenworthy’s Cookie Viewer. The major commercial players like Symantec and McAfee now include cookie management in their Internet security suites as do firewall applications like ZoneAlarm Pro. Tracking cookies are specifically targeted by many spyware removal programs. There are also programs such as Cookie Crusher designed to deal specifically with cookies. See the sidebar for references for various programs.

  So, hopefully you can now make some informed opinions about cookies. They sound scary but never say that a cookie has never done you any favors.

One Comment on “Cookies, Friend or Foe?”

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