What Are Browser Cookies, and How to Enable or Disable Them?

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in PrivacyApril 28, 2021

The computer term “cookie” has been around for many years, and most of us don’t even question its origins or what it really means. However, they are an important aspect when it comes to online privacy and security, and you should know all about them.

browser cookies

A cookie is a small bit of information stored on your computer or mobile device used by your internet browser to help you automatically log into websites and customize your experience. Cookies are tiny bits of text only, with no code or other information. 

A cookie allows your browser to remember pieces of information such as a session ID, username, password, or other details. At any given time, you may have thousands of cookies stored on your computer. If you clear your cookies, when you visit a website, it will be like you were never there before, the browser will have “forgotten” your login, and you will have to enter it all over again. 

Although cookies can streamline your login experience and save you time, they can also put you at risk. 

How Do Browser Cookies Work?

Your browser stores and manages all cookies collected from various locations on the web. Websites can only view their own cookies; they cannot access cookies from other sites. This feature protects you from someone illegally stealing your login credentials from other websites. You can access your cookies and view them from inside your web browser. 

Most web browsers also have a setting where you can turn off cookies and disallow the use of them. Some of the things that cookies store include:

  • Your username/password to log in.

  • Your login status.

  • Items in your shopping cart.

  • Preferences selected on the particular website.

  • Personalized content such as specific products you have recently viewed.

The Dangers of Browser Cookies

When cookies store innocent information like your favorite product on Amazon, it’s not much of a worry. However, when cookies store logins, social security numbers, or even payment data, then there is a concern for security and privacy. 

So, although your computer may be safe, if the website that collected and stored this information on your computer was hijacked with malware when you revised it, and the cookie was executed, it could potentially serve up private information directly into the hands of hackers. 

The History of Browser Cookies

During the 1990s, a computer programmer at Netscape, Montulli, wanted to find a way to save certain information on a website when the user revisited, so they could keep items in their shopping cart or save time by logging in quicker. So, he created cookies. He used the term from a common reference, “magic cookie,” related to the Unix operating system

When cookies first entered the scene, they used to “ask” if they could store a cookie on your machine. As cookies became more prevalent, browsers now automatically store them without asking. However, you can view, manage, and turn off cookies.

history of browser cookies

What Are Tracking Cookies?

In recent years marketers and nefarious criminals have learned how valuable a browser cookie can be. Advertising firms use tracking cookies to monitor your activities online and collect data about you so they can push customized ads to you that are in line with your lifestyle and personal choices. However, these types of cookies can feel intrusive.

Say you visit Amazon and browse some ski gear for your brother’s birthday. Now every time you perform a Google search or visit social media, you see ads popping up all over the place pushing ski stuff. That is how tracking cookies work. Cross-site tracking is even worse, so if you shop for something and visit multiple sites to find it, you will be cataloged as having visited those sites. Now a marketing company knows you are serious about buying and will try all sorts of tactics to push you towards their brands.

The idea behind this is called “targeted marketing,” and it is a very effective way to pinpoint good leads for your products and services. However, it can be annoying and frustrating as a consumer, and you feel like your privacy is being invaded.

How to Manage Your Browser Cookies?

Not everyone is comfortable with the level of intrusion, and therefore you might want to keep a close eye on your cookies. You can turn off cookies altogether in your browser, but then you cannot save your login or keep items in a shopping cart and return later to checkout. 

If you choose to keep cookies turned on, you can regularly clear the data to refresh the bucket. You can do so by visiting the settings in your browser and choosing “clear history” or “clear private data.” 

Most browsers now include a built-in tool so you can open a private page that does not allow any tracking, cross-site tracking, or stored cookies. If you want a completely private browsing experience, this is the way to go. 

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