What’s A Cookie & What Does It Have To Do With My Privacy? [MakeUseOf Explains]

What's A Cookie & What Does It Have To Do With My Privacy? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is A Cookie IntroMost 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.

What's A Cookie & What Does It Have To Do With My Privacy? [MakeUseOf Explains] web cookies diagram

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.

What's A Cookie & What Does It Have To Do With My Privacy? [MakeUseOf Explains] web cookies login

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.

What's A Cookie & What Does It Have To Do With My Privacy? [MakeUseOf Explains] web cookies comic

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 What Is HSTS and How Does It Protect HTTPS From Hackers? HTTPS keeps website visitors secure, but it's not perfect. Here's how HSTS works behind the scenes to protect HTTPS from hackers. Read More .

Ultimately, when it comes to cookie privacy, it’s all about trust. Do you trust that website to log every interaction? Read their privacy policy and terms of use–they’re usually linked on the website near the header or footer. If you don’t trust them, you can always wipe your cookies later.

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 Google's ReCAPTCHAs Also Capture Your Private Information Google's reCAPTCHA bot-detection pop-ups are a common site on the web. But what information are they collecting? Read More .

Image Credit: Laptop Cookies Via Shutterstock, Login Window Via Shutterstock, Cookie Comic Via gegen-den-strich.com

Explore more about: Browser Cookies, Online Privacy.

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  1. Simone
    January 24, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Nice article but i think miss to mention Flash cookies. http://www.digitalking.it/en/2012/12/18/cosa-sono-i-cookies-flash/

  2. Naz Lazar
    January 22, 2013 at 4:22 am

    I like to use the "Private Browsing" feature that most browsers offer when I don't want cookies.

    • Joel Lee
      January 30, 2013 at 5:08 pm

      Private Browsing (Incognito in Chrome) is actually very useful for this. Whenever I log onto Facebook or Gmail on a friend's computer, I always enter Private mode so no cookies are ever saved. I'm sure it has many more applications than that!

  3. AP
    January 19, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Thanks for simplifying this subject.

  4. susendeep dutta
    January 19, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    I only like to visit good quality sites.I remove cookies as they might give troubles in page loading and performance of a browser can get a hit after ending a session.

  5. Mohammad Wasiullah
    January 19, 2013 at 5:33 am

    If i am not deleting the cookie so could hack my account from other PC or laptop ?

    • Alan Wade
      January 19, 2013 at 8:23 am

      If I understand your question properly then no you cannot get hacked from cookies.
      I would suggest you read Joel's article again so that you can understand what they are.

      • dragonmouth
        January 19, 2013 at 9:06 pm

        Can sites read/access cookies other than their own?

  6. ReadandShare
    January 19, 2013 at 4:08 am

    What about 'Flash Cookies'?

    Google Chrome's "delete cookies" won't delete flash cookies. Neither will CCleaner.

    Can someone do a write up on Flash Cookies -- why are they different -- and why they can only be manually deleted, one by one?

    • Alan Wade
      January 19, 2013 at 4:25 am

      If you use Firefox you can install an addon called BetterPrivacy which deletes Flash cookies everytime you close your browser.

      • Alan Wade
        January 19, 2013 at 4:27 am

        Here you go, a bit on Flash Cookies (taken from the BetterPrivacy write up).

        Some Flash-cookie (LSO) properties in short...
        - they are never expiring - staying on your computer for an unlimited time.
        - by default they offer a storage of 100 KB (compare: Usual cookies 4 KB).
        - browsers are not fully aware of LSO's, They often cannot be displayed or managed by browsers.
        - via Flash they can access and store highly specific personal and technical information (system, user name, files,...).
        - ability to send the stored information to the appropriate server, without user's permission.
        - Flash applications do not need to be visible
        - there is no easy way to tell which Flash-cookie sites are tracking you.
        - shared folders allow cross-browser tracking, LSO's work in every flash-enabled application
        - the Flash company doesn't provide a user-friendly way to manage LSO's, In fact it's incredible cumbersome.
        - many domains and tracking companies make extensive use of Flash-cookies.
        This kind of cookies is not harmless.

        • ReadandShare
          January 19, 2013 at 7:07 am

          Thanks, Alan.

      • Rubis Song
        January 24, 2013 at 12:32 pm

        Thanks Alan. This addon was one of the reason why I still use FF even if Chrome is on top of my list!

  7. Movva Deepak
    January 19, 2013 at 3:36 am

    can cookies slowdown our system? Do all cookies self delete after a prescribed time?

    • Lee
      January 20, 2013 at 11:44 pm

      Not really. Definitely not anything noticeable.
      Each cookie is only a few kilobytes in size, so it would take about 2560 cookies to fill up 10mb of drive space.
      The only way this would cause any slowdowns is if your drive was very fragmented, and even then you would need much more than 10mb worth of cookies to cause a lot of fragmentation.

  8. Amr
    January 18, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    Nice article.The cookie is really interesting issue !