What’s a cookie?

A cookie is a small file which most websites place one or more of on your computer and which can be of benefit to you, or it can be moderately harmful. if you’re already familiar with cookies and just want to know how to deal with them securely, go to Internet Explorer cookie control for or Firefox 3 cookie control.

Benign cookies

These are quite helpful and can save you time. They allow a website you often visit to recognise who you are. The website records your details in a small file—the cookie—on your PC which the same site can read next time you visit. This saves you the bother of typing in your username and password to log in at websites where it’s a requirement.

It’s a tiny text file written to your hard drive by a web server. The helpful ones contain information which identifies you to the sites you visit (e.g. your username & password for the site) and allow you to revisit the site without logging in and for that site to be personalised for you.

For instance, perhaps you visit a site which tells you the weather forecast and what’s on TV. The site reads the cookie it has previously saved on your computer and, using that data, it sends the page with your local personalised forecast and with the TV channels available in your area already displayed.

Unwanted cookies

They can also be more sinister. Their aim is to track your habits and target you with unwanted advertising material like the dreaded spam.

They can be used to collect information about how you use the Internet. That information can then be sold to junkmail spammers without your knowledge or permission. Many of them come from third Party sites which may be, for instance, advertisers on a site you visit. You need to be aware of what they do and how to keep them in check.

You can increase your computer’s security by controling and restricting cookies using easily accessed browser settings:

  • Internet Explorer users see here: Cookie control
  • Firefox users here: Firefox 3 cookie controlFirefox logo

Why should I do this? I hear you cry!

To recap, for those who only looked at the pictures and missed the first paragraphs. :o)

The sites you visit may place first party cookies on your computer to keep track of your habits and needs. They contain information (e.g. your site logon and personalisation details) which you may have given on a previous visit.

Assuming that you’re not visiting dodgy websites, that’s usually OK and often to your benefit. If a site welcomes you by name, you have their cookie. No problem.

However the third party cookies are those placed by advertisers other than the main site. These we definitely don’t want. They don’t have your best interests at heart. They can lead to more spam and worse. Block ’em!

Should I block cookies altogether? Well, no…

Why not stop them all? Well, many legitimate websites won’t let you in if you block first party cookies. A typical example would be a print magazine or newspaper site, they’re providing a free service to to you which may well cost them a hard copy sale. It’s hardly surprising that they want to know how often you visit and what interests you.

It’s in the too hard basket.

Secondly, if you don’t already, as implied above, you’ll probably eventually go to sites where you must register or enrol to view all the content or to access your own account. In this case, the website will place a cookie on your computer containing your registration information: your username and password for instance. This allows you to go to the site and have full access without having to type in your details (log on) every time.

Typical sites at which this applies are Amazon, eBay, Dropbox, Evernote, major newspapers, utility companies, telecoms and any groups to which you may belong.

For obvious reasons it doesn’t happen at your bank’s website.

Read about Firefox cookie control here.

Controlling cookies in Internet Explorer

See also:

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