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«This site uses cookies». This is one of the warnings we come across most often when surfing the net. But what do these Internet cookies mean?

These cookies are small text files that a website saves on your computer’s browser when you visit the site. They, therefore, function as a temporary repository of information.

The main purpose of cookies is to store a user’s history of activity on a particular website in order to identify them when they return. Just like a bookmark for a book, cookies remind the website where you were last, but also what you did, who you are, and what you want. That is, they store information such as name and password (data that are freely given in a register), or language preferences, to facilitate the next visit to that page.

Its origin dates back to 1994 and is linked to an online shopping cart. A Netscape Communications employee created an e-commerce application that allowed the user to add a product to a digital cart and continue browsing to purchase others. When he returned to his cart, the goods he had selected remained there intact, since that information was stored in the browser’s memory and not on the web page. This is how the first cookie was born.

Types of cookies

When we talk about cookies, we must know that not all of them are the same, there are specific types that are worth commenting on:

  • Session cookies: they are characterized by their short life span, since they are deleted as soon as the browser is closed.
  • Persistent Cookies: They are kept for a specific time, despite the user closing the browser. Its function is focused on tracking the user to store information about their behavior on websites.
  • Secure Cookies: Only used in HTTPS connections, they store encrypted information so that the stored data is not susceptible to a malicious attack.
  • Zombie cookies: Their main characteristic is that, unlike the rest, they are stored in the computer and not in the browser, so they can be regenerated after being deleted as the browser has no power over them. Therefore, it is possible to access them from any browser.
  • Third-party cookies: Used mainly for advertising purposes, they come from servers other than the server of the website you are visiting.

Uses of cookies

The main functions of cookies are the control of users and the collection of information to know what their browsing preferences are. Based on these objectives, their uses can be very varied, as is the case of facilitating online shopping through a virtual cart. Here we explain the most important ones.

Firstly, cookies are generally used to identify and authenticate a user on a website. That is to say, the name and password are stored in a cookie to avoid that, when the person returns to the website, he/she is forced to re-enter his/her data. In this sense, for example, when we enter our social networks and close the page, our session will remain open until we return to it, so that, thanks to the cookie, we will not have to enter our personal data again.

On the other hand, there are websites that use tracking cookies to track users’ browsing, define their preferences and customize the appearance of the pages according to those tastes. For example, the person can decide the language, the theme, or the specific design, that all this information will be saved so that, later, the web page will be presented in the way it was set by the user, without the need for the user to make the configuration again.

The problem arises when this tracking is used for commercial purposes. And is that, in many cases, cookies are responsible for storing the information of all the places visited to offer to advertise based on what browsed. This is where the aforementioned third-party cookies come into play, which no longer seeks the benefit of the user but of others. This use is more intrusive and there are many who have equated it to computer espionage.

Cookie settings

Cookies can be enabled, but also blocked. While it is true that, in some websites, their activation is mandatory to be able to browse, in other cases it is recommended that they are disabled for privacy or security reasons, as in the case of third-party cookies. The configuration varies depending on the browser, although in general, it is very similar in all of them. Below, we explain how to do it in the main browsers.

The Internet Explorer user, for example, must access the browser tools and, later, the Internet options. Here, in the privacy settings, you have the option of disabling or enabling all cookies. Finally, you can decide how much security you want.

In Google Chrome, the user has to access, through the tools, to the settings, where you can find the possibility of advanced settings. This is where privacy is located and, within it, the content settings, where the desired option is chosen.

Finally, in Firefox, the user must go to settings, options, and privacy. Once you are in the latter, in the drop-down menu of the history option, you have to select the custom settings for history and, finally, decide the possibilities or types of cookies you want to browse with.

Are cookies bad?

Cookies, contrary to what many people think, are far from being viruses, or from generating popups and spam. Why? Basically, because they are data and do not have a code to execute, so they can not read or delete information from your computer. The myths about cookies are widespread but, having clear the explanation immediately above and despite its detractors, in general, they are not bad, but quite the opposite, because they generate a benefit for the user.

However, these cookies can be used for malicious purposes, because when storing the preferences of people when browsing, there are advertising companies that make them a use close to computer espionage. For this, there are antivirus programs that, in addition to their main function, are also capable of destroying certain cookies.

Therefore, to safeguard your security and privacy on the Internet, it is recommended that you access the cookie settings, explained in the previous section, and set the one that best suits your needs, but always know what you are doing and, with your consent, the consequences to which you may be exposed.

Cookie legislation

The possible creation of user profiles that, for example, advertising companies can make, led to the development of a law on cookies. For this reason, for some years now, this legal notice has appeared when we browse the Internet, as it has been decreed that the user knows, at all times, how the cookie data is used (information that can be accessed in the «Cookie Policy» option of the site) and also has the possibility of rejecting this operation. However, those cookies that are necessary for technical reasons for web operation do not require the user’s prior authorization.

Author

Kevin Greenberg has nearly 5 years of experience as a journalist, analyst, and editor in the cyber security and technology space. He has a B.A. from Columbia University, lives with his family in Western Massachusetts, and is always on the lookout for outstanding Mexican food.

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