What are Cookies?

Internet privacy info from the Ascentive team

If you surf the Internet, you’ve come across cookies in one form or another. A cookie is a type of message that is communicated to a web browser by a web server.  The two main purposes of a cookie are to identify users and possibly prepare customized Web pages, or to save site login information. Due to their core role of enhancing/enabling usability or site processes, disabling cookies may prevent users from using certain websites.

Cookies are created when a user’s web browser loads a particular website. The website sends information to the browser which then creates a text file. Every time the user goes back to the same website, the browser retrieves and sends this file to the website’s server. Computer Cookies are created not just by the website the user is browsing but also by other websites that run ads, widgets, or other elements on the page being loaded. These types of cookies regulate how the ads appear or how the widgets and other elements function on the page.

Session Cookies are a type of cookie used by a server to store information about user page activities so users can easily pick up where they left off on the server’s pages. By default, web pages really don’t have any ‘memory’. Cookies tell the server what pages to show the user so the user doesn’t have to remember or start navigating the site all over again. Cookies act as a sort of “bookmark” within the site. Similarly, cookies can store ordering information needed to make shopping carts work instead of forcing the user to remember all the items the user put in the shopping cart.

Persistent Cookies are employed to store user preferences. Many websites allow the user to customize how information is presented through site layouts or themes. These changes make the site easier to navigate and/or lets user leave a part of the user’s “personality” at the site.

Cookie security and privacy issues

It’s important to note that cookies are not viruses. Cookies use a plain text format, and they are not compiled pieces of code so they cannot be executed nor are they self-executing. They also cannot make copies of themselves and spread to other networks to execute and replicate. However, Cookies can be used for malicious purposes. Since they store information about a user’s browsing preferences and history, both on a specific site and browsing among several sites, cookies can be used to act as a form of spyware.

Responsible web developers deal with privacy issues caused by cookie tracking by clearly describing how cookies are used on their sites. These privacy policies should explain what kind of information is collected and how the information is used.

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