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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

If you Give a Website a Cookie....

Photo by Charles M. Wrenn III.
Morgue File

So.. what is a cookie?  It comes with various names such as HTTP cookie, web cookie, or browser cookie although often shorted to simply 'cookie'. When it comes to the web and your browser, a cookie is:

"A very small text file placed on your hard drive by a Web Page server. It is essentially your identification card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you." Source: http://www.microsoft.com/info/cookies.mspx 

What is that in English?  When you visit a website, the web page 'gives' your computer a small file to store on your computer (and doesn't follow you if you use another computer or browser). This small file contains various pieces of information such as the browser you are using and your IP address and an approximate location. Some cookies will only last as long as you are on the site and the browser deletes it after you leave. Other cookies remain on your computer for up to a year or more.  For most websites, it just notifies the server of your visit, but a savvy web designer will give you a more interactive web session once you sign up with them.  It can save usernames, a password and even your personal preferences.  So when I visit Amazon.com, for example, the website knows that it is 'me' by my web cookie and will show me my preferences, my account and any items they think I might be interested in based on my prior visits.

Cookies cannot be programmed, cannot carry viruses, and cannot install malware on the host computer.

Click for larger view. Firefox Privacy
So, maybe you don't' want this much information on your computer or accessible to the website?  After all, some cookies can be used by spyware to track user's browsing activities which can be a privacy concern.

The good news is you can maintain your cookies by your browsers tools. In the Firefox example [right], under TOOLS/OPTIONS/PRIVACY, you can have your browser to "Tell websites you don't want to be tracked". This is not the same as turning off accepting cookies. You can also clean our the individual cookies by clicking on the "remove individual cookies" section. You can also remove all the cookies, but beware, you will have to sign in to all websites once you remove the cookie, so be sure you have a record of your usernames and passwords. (More on browser saved passwords in a future post.)

In Internet Explorer, it is under INTERNET OPTIONS/PRIVACY where you can change your Internet Zone settings.

In Opera, use CTRL/F12 to get to the preferences, select the Advanced tab and you will find 'cookies' on the left side panel.

In Chrome, go to OPTIONS, select UNDER THE HOOD on the left side panel. At the top you will see PRIVACY and a like to CONTENT SETTINGS. You will find cookie settings at the top of the page.

If you choose to not receive any cookies, you will find your browsing experience to be frustrating as you will not be able to view some web pages. Like many things, cookies should be maintained and periodically reviewed. Although small, over time, these files will start to take up space, kinda like soda cans in my son's room. ☺

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