All about Internet cookies

If you’ve been travelling in the web world a while, you’ve probably heard of cookies. No, not the kind you munch while surfing, but instead the tool that makes it possible for a website to gather accurate information about its visitors. This sets off alarm bells among users about their privacy – but simple site operations depend on it, and almost every major site uses them.

Let’s explore what cookies are and what the implications of them could be for an Internet user.

First, what exactly are cookies?
In April 2000, a respected newspaper described cookies as: “Programs that websites put on your hard disk. They sit on your computer gathering information about you and everything you do on the Internet.” This incorrect definition often appears in the press.
Cookies aren’t programs, but a unique ID number a site comes up with for each person who visits it. These are called “name-value pairs.” A name-value pair is simply a named piece of data. It can’t do anything, or retrieve information from your machine or any other cookie files. Think of it as your welcoming pass to get you back into a site. When you visit and then revisit a site, your browser and a site’s server use cookies to talk to each other.

What are the advantages of cookies?
Cookies solve a big problem for people who run websites. Simply put, cookies state information on your PC and then share that information with your browser to customise the online experience. Websites use cookies in several beneficial ways for both the user and the site owner:

Cookies share data. To determine how many people visited the site and which items were clicked on, which helps site managers present the best choices of material to visitors.

Cookies deliver a personalised experience. To store user preferences and create more personal browsing experiences, for example, by customising screen and icon appearances.

Cookies are smart. E-commerce sites can create shopping carts and “Quick Checkout” options, and make product recommendations based on previous purchases.

It’s important to note that all this information is stored on the site, and not the cookie. The cookie can simply be described as your identifying pass. Without it, the web wouldn’t be so easy to navigate or nearly as intuitive.

Problems and privacy issues
But all this ease doesn’t come without bumps in the road. Here are some issues that cookies create:

Cookies don’t know faces. People often share PCs, so cookie preferences of one person’s account could be used by another person to purchase items on it.

Cookies are fragile. Cookies get erased, which makes it harder to retrieve preferences. This is why sites often ask you to register.

Cookies know more than you think. In the early days of marketing, offline catalogue ordering companies could share customer information to others who might want to sell similar products to them. But in the online world, the information is much greater: a website can track your purchases, the pages you read, the ads that you click on, and so on. If you then purchase something and enter your name and address, the site knows much more about you, improving targeting, which makes people uncomfortable.

Cookies don’t follow you when you want them to. It’s common for people to use more than one Internet device in a given day, such as a desktop at the office, a laptop at home and a tablet or smartphone on the go. It can be annoying to set preferences many times.

Cookies are always watching. Some providers can actually create cookies that are visible on multiple sites. For example, they can place small (1×1 pixel) GIF files on the site that can follow the search strings you type into search engines and so form very rich profiles. By linking back to name and address information, some providers have threatened to personalise and sell the data. Most people regard this as spying.

So, cookies – good or bad?
Cookies are like any other tools; they can either benefit or disrupt those who use them. But it’s not so much the tools that are responsible, but the hands that use it.
It’s easy to see which cookies are installed on your machine, as well as erase them, through the privacy settings in your browser. In Firefox, for example, just select the “Tools” menu, click on the “Options” then “Privacy” button, then select the “Remove individual cookies” function before viewing the cookies of your browser. This kind of transparency proves you’re not forced to use cookies.
Yet, for most people, cookies are a clever way to make your life more productive, your online experiences more personalised and the Internet a slightly sweeter place to work.


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