What are Internet Cookies? All You Need to Know

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

What are Internet Cookies? All You Need to Know (2023)

What are Internet Cookies?

Did you know that every time you visit a website, you’re likely to encounter internet cookies? These seemingly harmless text files can impact your online experience and privacy in ways you may not even realize.

In this blog post, we’ll explore what internet cookies are, how they work, the different types of cookies, and how to manage them for improved privacy. Whether you’re a casual internet user or a tech-savvy professional, understanding internet cookies is essential for today’s digital world.

Summary

  • Internet cookies are small text files that a website stores on your computer so it can remember details about you. These can be first-party or third-party cookies.

  • First-party cookies are created and used by the website you’re visiting. They are usually harmless and make your online experience better. For instance, by storing your login info.

  • Third-party cookies, on the other hand, are often tracking cookies. These cookies record user behavior and gather analytical information, often for advertising purposes.

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Understanding Internet Cookies

Surfing the internet is like walking through a forest of digital breadcrumbs, with internet cookies leaving a trail of information about your online activities. These small text files are created by websites to store user information and preferences, making your browsing experience more seamless and personalized.

From remembering your login details to tracking your online behavior, cookies play a vital role in the modern internet landscape.

Definition of Internet Cookies

Internet cookies, also known as browser cookies or HTTP cookies, are small text files that websites store on your computer or mobile device. They contain a unique identifier and the website’s name, along with some of your personal information if you’ve shared it with the website. While the term “cookie” might bring to mind images of tasty treats, these digital cookies serve a different purpose – they help websites remember who’s visiting them and reduce the load on web servers.

Despite their widespread use, internet cookies are often misunderstood and even feared by some users. Rumors of cookies stealing passwords or downloading malware have circulated the internet, but cookies themselves are not harmful and pose no direct threat to your computer or data. However, they can be used to track your online activity, which can raise privacy concerns for some users.

The Purpose of Cookies

The main reason for using internet cookies is to enhance user experience. They allow websites to remember your login details, preferences, and even the items in your online shopping cart. By storing this information, cookies help websites run more smoothly and provide services based on the identifiers they contain. For example, if you’ve ever visited a website and found that it automatically displays in your preferred language, you can thank cookies for that convenience.

However, not all cookies are created equal. While first-party cookies, which are created by the website you’re visiting, are generally considered beneficial for user experience, third-party cookies can raise privacy concerns. These cookies are created by other websites and can be used to track your activity across multiple sites, building a profile on your browsing habits and interests. While this data can be used for targeted advertising, it may also reveal sensitive information and contribute to privacy concerns.

How Internet Cookies Work

To better understand the role of cookies in our online lives, it’s important to grasp how they work. When you visit a website, the web server sends a cookie to your computer or mobile device. Your browser then stores the cookie and sends it back to the server each time you visit the website.

This helps the server recognize you and customize your experience accordingly. For instance, if you frequently visit a news website, the server may recognize your interests and display more relevant articles based on the data stored in cookies.

Cookie Creation and Storage

Cookies are created by web servers and stored on your device when you visit a website. It was Lou Montulli, a web browser programmer at Netscape Communications, who came up with the idea of using text files to store information back in 1994. Once the web server generates the cookie, it is stored on your device and can be read by the server each time you revisit the site. This process allows websites to remember your preferences, login information, and browsing habits, ensuring a more personalized and efficient online experience.

While cookies can greatly enhance your browsing experience, it’s worth remembering that they are not infallible. Cookies can be deleted, either manually by the user or automatically by your browser when they expire. In such cases, websites may no longer remember your preferences or other information, potentially leading to a less convenient online experience.

Retrieval and Usage

Once a cookie is stored on your device, it can be retrieved by the website that created it. This retrieval is done through the Cookie HTTP header, which is included in requests made to the same server. The information contained in the cookie can then be used by the website to tailor your experience and provide personalized content. Authentication cookies are often used by web servers. They help verify if a user is logged in and what account they are using.

However, the retrieval and usage of cookies also raise privacy concerns. As previously mentioned, third-party cookies can track your online behavior across numerous websites and build a profile of your interests for targeted advertising purposes. While some users appreciate personalized ads, others may find this level of data collection intrusive and opt to block third-party cookies for increased privacy.

Different Types of Internet Cookies

As we’ve seen, internet cookies play a variety of roles in our online experiences. To better understand these roles, it’s helpful to know the different types of cookies and their specific functions.

In general, there are four main types of cookies: first-party cookies, third-party cookies, session cookies, and persistent cookies.

First-Party Cookies

First-party cookies are created and used by the website you’re visiting. They store information like user preferences and login info, and can only be accessed by the website operators. By remembering your preferences and providing a seamless online experience, first-party cookies help make your browsing more convenient and efficient.

However, first-party cookies have their limitations. They cannot be used to monitor user activity across multiple websites or store large amounts of data, making them less suitable for tracking and advertising purposes. Despite these drawbacks, first-party cookies are generally considered beneficial for user experience and are less likely to raise privacy concerns.

Third-Party Cookies

Third-party cookies, on the other hand, are created by companies or websites other than the one you’re visiting. These cookies are primarily used for tracking user behavior and gathering analytical information, often for advertising purposes. Advertising cookies, a type of third-party persistent cookie, build a profile on users based on their interests, search history, and viewed items, sharing that information with other websites to advertise relevant products and services.

While some users appreciate the personalized ads that third-party cookies enable, others may find this level of data collection intrusive and opt to block them. In recent years, there has been a growing push for greater transparency and user control over third-party cookies, with some web browsers even blocking them by default.

Session and Persistent Cookies

The final distinction between cookies lies in their duration. Sessions cookies are temporary and only store information while you’re browsing a website, getting deleted once you close your browser. These cookies are useful for remembering items in your online shopping cart or keeping track of your progress through a multi-page form.

Persistent cookies, on the other hand, remain on your device until they expire or are removed manually. These cookies are used to track and collect information about the user, remember login details, and build a profile based on search history. While persistent cookies can provide a more personalized browsing experience, they may also raise privacy concerns due to their ability to track user behavior over longer periods.

The Safety and Privacy Concerns of Internet Cookies

While cookies are generally safe and can’t download malware, they can be used to track and monitor a user’s activity on a website, potentially revealing sensitive information and raising privacy concerns.

Additionally, cookies can be exploited through techniques such as cookie poisoning and zombie cookies, which can lead to unauthorized access to user data and browsing sessions.

Are Cookies Safe?

In general, cookies are safe and do not pose a direct threat to your computer or data. However, they can be used to track your online activity, which can raise privacy concerns for some users. While first-party cookies, which are created by the website you’re visiting, are considered beneficial for user experience and less likely to raise privacy concerns, third-party cookies can be more controversial due to their role in tracking user behavior across multiple websites.

Despite these concerns, it’s important to remember that cookies themselves are not harmful and cannot download malware or steal passwords. The primary risks associated with cookies stem from their potential use for tracking and monitoring user activity, rather than any inherent dangers in the cookies themselves.

Privacy Implications

The privacy implications of internet cookies largely center on their ability to store personal information and track user behavior. While first-party cookies generally store information related to user preferences and login details, third-party cookies can be used to track user behavior across multiple websites, building a profile of browsing habits and interests.

This level of data collection can be concerning for some users, as it may reveal sensitive information and contribute to a lack of digital privacy. Privacy advocates have raised concerns about how this data is being used and sold without the user’s knowledge or consent, leading to increased scrutiny of third-party cookies and a push for greater transparency and user control.

Managing Your Cookies for Enhanced Online Privacy

Given the potential privacy concerns associated with cookies, it’s important to know how to manage and control them for better privacy and security. By understanding how to check and remove cookies from different browsers, as well as how to allow or disallow them according to your preferences, you can take control of your online privacy and ensure a more secure browsing experience.

Cookies are small pieces of data stored on your computer by websites you visit. They can be used to track your browsing activity and store information about you, such as your preferences and login details. It’s important to understand that.

Checking and Deleting Cookies

To check and delete cookies, you’ll need to access the settings of your web browser. In there, you can find options to clear browsing data, which includes cookies. The steps may be slightly different depending on which browser you’re using, but the process generally involves navigating to your browser’s settings or preferences and looking for the option to clear browsing data or history. When you choose to clear this data, you can select which types of data you want to delete, including cookies.

However, it’s worth noting that deleting cookies may affect your browsing experience. When you delete cookies, websites may no longer remember your preferences or other information, potentially leading to a less convenient online experience. This trade-off between convenience and privacy is important to consider when deciding whether to delete cookies.

Blocking and Allowing Cookies

In addition to deleting cookies, you can also control which cookies are allowed or blocked based on your preferences. This can be done through your browser’s settings, where you can manage your cookie settings and choose whether to allow or block all cookies, only allow first-party cookies, or block third-party cookies. Some browsers also offer advanced options for managing cookies, such as the ability to block cookies from specific websites or to delete cookies when the browser is closed.

When deciding whether to block cookies, it’s important to weigh the potential privacy benefits against the potential impact on your browsing experience. Blocking cookies can help safeguard your privacy, but it may also prevent websites from functioning properly or remembering your preferences.

Ultimately, the choice to block or allow cookies will depend on your personal preferences and priorities.

Legal Aspects and Compliance with Cookie Regulations

As the use of cookies has grown, so too have the legal requirements and regulations surrounding their use. In the European Union, for example, websites are required to obtain user consent before storing or retrieving any information on their devices, including cookies.

This regulation, known as the EU Cookie Law, aims to protect user privacy by ensuring that websites are transparent about their use of cookies and obtain user consent before storing or using their data.

The EU Cookie Law

The EU Cookie Law is a privacy regulation that requires websites to get permission from users before storing or retrieving any information on their devices, including cookies. This law was created to protect users’ privacy by ensuring that websites get user consent before storing or retrieving any information on their computers, including cookies. To comply with this regulation, websites must provide clear information about the cookies they use and their purpose, and obtain user consent before storing or using their data.

While the EU Cookie Law primarily affects websites operating within the European Union, it has also influenced privacy regulations in other countries and regions, including the United States. In the US, cookie regulations are not regulated at a federal level, but some states have their own laws that cover cookie usage.

Complying with Cookie Regulations

To comply with cookie regulations and maintain transparency with users, website owners should provide clear information about the cookies they use and their purpose, and obtain user consent before storing or using their data. This can be achieved through the use of cookie banners, pop-ups, or other notifications that inform users about the use of cookies and request their consent.

Additionally, website owners should periodically review and update their cookie policies and practices to ensure ongoing compliance with applicable regulations and maintain trust with their users.

Summary

In conclusion, internet cookies play an integral role in our online experiences, helping to personalize and streamline our interactions with websites. While their use raises concerns about privacy and security, understanding the different types of cookies and how they function can empower users to manage their cookies for enhanced online privacy. By staying informed about cookie regulations and best practices, both website owners and users can work together to create a more transparent and secure digital world.

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

Should I accept cookies?

Based on the potential risks, it’s best to be cautious and decline cookies when prompted. If the website is reputable, it won’t require cookies in order for you to use its services or access its content. Making sure to keep your data private and secure is essential in today’s digital world.

What does an internet cookie do?

Cookies are small pieces of information that a website stores on your computer so it can remember certain details about you. Your web browser sends this data back to the site when you revisit, allowing the website to recognize you and tailor the content to your preferences.

Should I accept cookies on the internet?

My advice is to not accept cookies on the Internet unless it is from a trusted source. Cookies can contain personal data, which can be used for nefarious purposes, so it is always best to err on the side of caution and protect yourself by declining.

What is an example of internet cookies?

An easy example of cookies is when you go on a website and your login information is already filled in. Cookies help websites remember your details for easier access.

Another example is when you shop online and the items you’ve already added to your cart are still there when you return to the website. That’s the power of cookies!

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor has tested 39 antivirus programs and 30 VPN services, and holds a Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate from Stanford University.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.