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What are cookies in computers?

Cookie notice – Cookies – also known as browser cookies or tracking cookies, cookies are small, often encrypted text files, located in browser directories. They are used by web developers to help users navigate their websites efficiently and perform certain functions. 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 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 cookies regulate how the ads appear or how the widgets and other elements function on the page.

Standard uses for browser cookies

Website servers set cookies to help authenticate the user if the user logs in to a secure area of the website. Login information is stored in a cookie so the user can enter and leave the website without having to re-enter the same authentication information over and over.

Session Cookies are also used by the 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 or tracking Cookies are also 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

Cookies are NOT viruses. Cookies use a plain text format. They are not compiled pieces of code so they cannot be executed nor are they self-executing. Accordingly, they cannot make copies of themselves and spread to other networks to execute and replicate again. Since they cannot perform these functions, they fall outside the standard virus definition.

Cookies CAN be used for malicious purposes though. 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. Many anti-spyware products are well aware of this problem and routinely flag cookies as candidates for deletion after standard virus and/or spyware scans. The way responsible and ethical web developers deal with privacy issues caused by cookie tracking is by including clear descriptions of how cookies are deployed on their site.

Other cookie-based threats

Since identity protection is highly valued and is every internet users right, it pays to be aware of what threat cookies can pose.

As cookies are transmitted back and forth between a browser and website, if an attacker or unauthorized person gets in between the data transmission, the sensitive cookie information can be intercepted. Although relatively rare, this can happen if the browser is connecting to the server using an unencrypted network like an non-secured WiFi channel. Internet security is only attainable if you regualrly use a anti-virus protection programme.

Key tips for safe and responsible cookie-based Web browsing

Due to their flexibility and the fact that many of the largest and most-visited websites use cookies by default, cookies are almost unavoidable. Disabling cookies will lock a user out of many of the most widely-used sites on the Internet like Youtube, Gmail, Yahoo mail, and others. Even search settings require cookies for language settings.

What can I do to manage cookies stored on my computer?

Different browsers offer differing ways to configure your browser’s cookie settings.

Due to the wide range of differences among differing websites’ privacy policies, many browsers allow for universal privacy settings which users can choose from.

Users choose differing privacy settings based on their differing privacy concerns. Most commercial and/or professionally-created websites have privacy policy pages that disclose how the sites handle, gather, and/or pass on user information to third parties. These are known as “P3P” features (Privacy Preferences Platform).

If the commercial website you are visiting lacks a privacy policy, be very careful with any information you enter into any forms within the site.

You can easily remove any cookies that have been created in the cookie folder of your browser. For example, if you are on Windows machine, here are the steps on how to use Windows Explorer to erase cookie files:

  • Click on ‚Windows Explorer’
  • Select the ‚Search’ button on the tool bar
  • Enter “cookie” into the search box field for ‚Folders and Files’
  • Choose ‚My Computer’ in the ‚Look In’ drop down menu
  • Click on ‚Search Now’
  • Select and open the folders that are retrieved
  • Click to highlight any cookie file
  • Click the ‚Delete’ key to erase the cookie file

If you don’t have Windows Explorer, click the “Help” function on your “Start” button and enter “cookies” to search for information on how to locate the folder.

There are a number of ways to manage cookies. You can clear cookies, prevent cookies, delete cookies and enable cookies at your will and for differernt circumstances. If you use different computers in different locations you will need to ensure that each browser is adjusted to suit your cookie preferences.

What Cookies Do to Your PCs

Cookies are browser dependent and are essentially text files that contain information your browser saves on one of this folders for some websites that do send out cookies. By themselves, cookies pose no risk since they do not contain virus in any form nor do they spy on your PC content to compromise security. They are used to make online surfing faster and easier by make the sites you’ve visited remember who you are, like remembering you IP address or passwords, along with your own preferences such as when Amazon recommend a book or music CD similar to what you looked for in your last visit.

But this convenience feature of having cookies can be eagerly overused when some websites use them to track you across various websites often for analytical competition purposes and thus, record you surfing behavior. In gets a bit frightening when the companies that track you are those you have never dealt with and to whom you never gave your personal information.

What can I do to clear cookies installed on my computer?

Although cookies are very useful to navigate the Internet, you definitely need to know the basics of removing your cookie files so you can protect your privacy online. There are two kinds of cookies-regular text browser cookies and flash cookies. To ensure maximum web browsing privacy, you have to delete both kinds of cookies. Too many Internet users delete cookies which are text-based and leave flash cookies intact. This doesn’t protect your privacy. You have to know how to delete flash cookies, too.

How to delete cookies in Internet Explorer
Step 1: Press Start

Step 2: Click Control Panel

Step 3: Double click Internet options

Step 4: Under the General Tab, you will see ‚Delete temporary files, history, cookies, saved passwords…’  Click Delete

Step 5: The Delete Browsing History dialog box will appear, click the ‚cookies’ checkbox

Step 6: Click the delete button at the bottom of the dialog box

Step 7: You will be taken back to the Internet properties dialog box. Click ‚ok’

How to delete cookies in Chrome

Step 1: At the top right side of your browser toolbar, click on the Chrome icon

Step 2: Click on Settings

Step 3: Scroll to the bottom and click ‚Show advanced settings’

Step 4: Under ‚Privacy’, you will see ‚Content Settings’, click on this

Step 5: Under ‚Cookies’, you will see ‚All cookies and site data’, click on this.  Please note that you can block cookies altogether from being set on your browser by clicking ‚Block sites from setting any data.’ Unfortunately, many websites you browse will stop working if you do this. It is better if you just periodically clear your cookies manually instead of preventing them from being set by your browser.

Step 6: You will see a full listing of all your cookies. You can click REMOVE ALL to clear all your cookies or you can pick a particular website and clear your cookies from that site.

How to remove cookies in Safari

Please note that if you change your cookie preferences in Safari or remove the cookies in your browser, this might remove or change the cookie settings in your other applications including your Dashboard.

Step 1:  Open Safari.

Step 2:  Click Safari then Preferences. Click on ‚Privacy.’

Step 3:  Click on ‚Details.’

Step 4:  You will see a lit of websites that store cookies. You can remove single sites by clicking the ‚Remove’ button and selecting a site. If you want clear all cookies, click ‚Remove All.’

Step 5:  When you have finished removing sites, click ‚Done.’