Most people know that there are cookies scattered all over the Internet, ready and willing to be eaten up by whoever can find them first. Wait, what? That can’t be right. Yes, there are cookies on the Internet (technically, the World Wide Web), and yes, they really are called “cookies”. But they aren’t delicious and they can affect your privacy, so you should know what they do.
Whether you’re browsing Google search results, logging into Facebook, or just innocently chatting away on an online forum, you’ve encountered cookies. They aren’t inherently harmful but, just like passwords or email addresses, they can be exploited when placed in the wrong hands. Keep reading to learn how you can protect yourself.
What Are Cookies, Really?
In simple terms, cookies are just files that reside on your computer. Cookies are created when you visit a website. They are used to store bits of information about your interactions with the website, which the web server can use later when processing your sessions. The cookie is specific to you and it can be read by the web server (when interacting with it) or by programs on your computer.
To be technical, your browser is the program that mediates cookie control between your computer and the website. These cookies used by a website to present different types of content depending on who you are in relation to that website. Cookies can expire after a given time period (usually determined by the website issuing the cookie), but if necessary, they can be manually deleted.
Why are cookies used? Because they’re convenient and efficient. If a website wants to service thousands of users without cookies, it would have to store all of that interaction data in its own storage and it would have to be processed on its own. By offloading that work to the user, it becomes a faster and less strenuous procedure.
What are cookies used for? One reason for a cookie is to identify you. If you log in to a website and close your browser, then open it back up, the website knows it’s you because that cookie exists (it was created when you logged in). Cookies can store all sorts of information, like your preferences, your browser type, your location, etc. and this information can be used to better your experience.
How Do Cookies Affect You?
For the most part, cookies are NOT harmful. They’re just another protocol used on the Internet to facilitate communication between users and servers. Worried about viruses and malware? You can relax. Cookies cannot carry viruses or malware, nor can they transfer such things to other users.
Cookies are a necessary part of the Internet experience and they shouldn’t be feared. For example, deleting your cookies will log you out of sites like MakeUseOf and Facebook. If you like convenience and personalization, then you should learn to embrace cookies.
But what should you worry about?
The worst possible scenario would be the interception or forgery of one of your cookies, which would allow another user to impersonate you on some website. This could result in them eavesdropping on your user data OR hijacking your account credentials. However, don’t be too alarmed. Cookie security mostly depends on the website and your browser; a cookie encryption feature, for example, can help protect you from hackers.
A more prevalent issue is a specific type of cookie called the “tracking cookie.” These cookies aren’t used to better your experience. Instead, they keep track of all of your actions on certain websites. These can be used to build browsing history profiles, which can be used to target specific ads to you. This is where invasion of privacy comes in.
Protecting Your Privacy
Here’s what you need to know about cookie privacy: they cannot know any information that you don’t personally provide. In other words, just because a website has a cookie on you doesn’t mean that they know everyone in your family and which schools you’ve attended–unless you entered that information to the website.
The biggest problem with tracking cookies is that an advertising agency can view your browsing history (since that’s what they use to target ads relevant to your interests). You can prevent them from doing this, of course, by playing with your browser settings and disabling cookies.
If you don’t want to disable ALL cookies (which would keep you from enjoying the legitimate features on legitimate websites), certain browsers let you disable specific cookies from certain domains. Some more advanced browsers let you synchronize with black lists; these are maintained by people or communities to keep out domains with shady cookie practices. You can also enable HSTS to prevent cookie hijacking.
Speaking of cookies, did you know that Google uses them as part of their reCAPTCHA system to stop spambots in their tracks? The catch is that Google’s reCAPTCHAS also capture your private information.