How Do Websites Use Cookies? [Technology Explained]

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cookie monsterChances are that you’ve probably heard about cookies – those little pieces of data in your browser on your computer that some say track the sites you visit and compromise your security. There are plenty of rumors going around about them, and in this article, we’ll sort through the myths and truths that exist about how websites use cookies.

While they aren’t the chocolate kind you eat, cookies did cause a quite a security commotion a few years ago and it’s surely worth knowing how they work and what they do on your computer. Cookies are small bits of text data stored in your computer by websites you visit and are organized in a name:value pair along with a separate domain and expiration value. Cookie data is also sent back and forth between certain sites you visit whenever you travel to that site.

Google Search might place a cookie on your computer if you adjust your search preferences with the site for example. If you set your default Google display language to “Ewmew Fudd”, than Google will place a cookie on your computer with the following text:

“ID=87d29aeaeaf65698:U=4906f9bfc2fcadbb:LD=xx-elmer:NR=10:TM=1259122802:LM=1259165259:GM=1:S=tUvbIFprv_XP1fQP”.

You can see the word “elmer” and an ID in there, but the rest is not human readable- only data Google uses to store the rest of my search settings and language preferences. Many sites though simply store an ID for your specific computer to keep settings for you when you visit next. But, every time you visit Google again, their site will read this cookie and show you your results in “Ewmew Fudd” language.

how do websites use cookies

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Other popular examples where sites store cookies on your computer can be seen in shopping carts, and any site that requires a login or remembers you uniquely somehow during a “session” with that site. Analytics and visitor tracking to monitor how many times you return to a specific site are also another large source of cookies. Also, online ad services such as Google Adsense also store cookies on your computer to display and remember what kind of ads it thinks you might like.

how do websites use cookies

The danger of cookies to some is that they can be used for targeted advertising online, and as I mentioned earlier, sites that use Google Adsense or Doubleclick can keep track of your preferences and ad likings and then target certain types of ads that you specifically like at you as you browse the web (but only on the sites that also use the same ad networks). Different organizations though have different privacy policies, and it is key to understand that targeting is not a threat or danger to your computer; it just makes some people uneasy if they are aware they are being targeted with certain ads.

The Network Advertising Initiative offer a simple page that you can visit here for example that allows you to opt out of some types of targeted advertising from many major ad networks, all on one page.

how do websites use cookies

Most current browsers have an easy-to-use utility to view and remove cookies that sites have stored on your computer. Firefox for example allows you to right-click on a page you are viewing, click on “View Page Info” and then on the “Security” tab. From there in the “Privacy & History” tab, you can click on “View Cookies” to see any cookies that that site has stored on your computer. Chrome also allows you to . While disabling cookies might impair your browsing on many sites, if you’re worried about your cookie security, you can also simply clear out all of your cookies from within your browser’s “Clear Private Data” (Firefox) or “Clear Browsing Data” (Chrome) option. Internet Explorer also allows you to delete your browsing and cookie data every time you exit the browser from Tools > Internet Options.

Do you often clear out your browser history to get rid of cookies or do they sit for months in your computer? Got any additional comment on how websites may use cookies? Share your thoughts below in the comments.

Image Credit : scubadive67

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Comments (14)
  • Buffet

    Thanks Jim!

  • Travis Berry

    I have my firefox setup to delete everything on close. I don’t mind losing remembered passwords as I never check the “remember me” box. Having to use my name and password helps me remember it.

  • Grant

    Flash cookies work a little differently because they can store more than regular cookies can (I think up to 100KB in some cases) and they don’t get cleared when you clear your browser’s regular cookies or cache. Like regular cookies, they still can watch repeated visits to a site, but that extra threat is that people don’t usually think about clearing their flash cookies separately when they clean out their browser cookies.

    You can however view and clear them from a web-based settings manager at Adobe’s Website here. Thanks for the comment!

    • Ano

      Thanks for the info : )
      Do you know if there is a simple Firfox addon for clearing flash cookies? I see the one above but it requires settings for individual sites and I would probably do better something a bit simpler.

      Thanks again.

    • Grant

      Sure- you can try something like BetterPrivacy or Objection for Firefox. Thank you for reading and commenting!

    • Jim

      By the way, if you or anyone else is interested, we’re beta testing a Firefox addon from PrivacyChoice that only deletes Flash cookies from the targeting firms, so it doesn’t interfere with other applications (like online video) where it helps to save your settings and such. If you are interested in trying this out (and taking 5 minutes to confirm that it’s working), please drop me a note to Jim at beta@privacychoice.org

  • Ano

    Can you explain how Flash cookies work as opposed to regular cookies and how to clear them as well. I may be wrong as I am not technically inclined but I understand Flash cookies have greater security threats than regular cookies and are harder to monitor.

    Thanks

  • vietvet52

    i used to clear them , not anymore kaspersky keeps me safe

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.