Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Ins And Outs Of Cookies

cookie image from Bobby Owsinski's Music 3.0 blog
We're exposed to so much technical jargon every day that we think that we know everything just because we're familiar with a term. Take "cookies," for instance. So many of us have heard of the term, and we may loosely be aware that they have something to do with our browser, but that's probably it. If that's you, then let me take some of the mystery out the term.

A cookie is a small piece of data that a website stores on your browser while you're looking at a website that's used to track the number of visits and unique visitors to a site. In other words, the next time you visit the site that deposited the cookie, it records the fact that you've come back and how long you stayed.

There are two main types of cookies; transient and persistent, although sometimes they're called "session" and "user" respectively. A transient cookie is set when you visit a site and disappears when you leave, but measures everything about the experience while you're there, including what you clicked on and how long you looked at a page.

A persistent cookie is set the first time that you visit a site and stays with your browser for a period of time that can be finite (say 12 months) to forever. These alert the browser the next time you return and any preferences that you might have set, then act like a session cookie during that time. While this sounds somewhat insidious, it's important to understand that persistent cookies don't contain any of your personal information, and have only a simple character string that the company that inserted it can read. It's also important to understand that you can choose to delete it at any time, and each different browser has a way to do this in their Settings section.

Another type of cookie is a "secure" cookie, that's used on encrypted HTTPS sites, like for banking or sales. It's encrypted along with the transaction info of the site so it's less likely to be exposed to any outside eavesdropping.

Then we have first and third party cookies. First party cookies come from the site that you visited itself, while third party cookies that come from a different domain name. These are sometimes used by sites to measure what happens once you leave a site. For instance, Yahoo may insert a cookie that watches when you go to eBay, or any site with banner adds needs to utilize them to track the click throughs. Sometimes these are rejected by your browser, or you're specifically asked if you want to accept them.

There are many other types of cookies as well, but the idea here is to give you a reason not to fear them. A cookie is just a way for you to personalize your settings on a site, and for the site to measure what you do once you're there. No more, no less.


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1 comment:

Rand Bliss said...

Cookies! Both positive and negative; like any tool can be used or abused. Trust no one completely in Cyberland.

What do these companies do with all your stored information? Who's to say it isn't sold until one's privacy is breached (which it has been and still is).

Paranoia? You bet. Google (oh, the irony of saying that) how next to impossible it is to police and guarantee people's privacy over the internet and enlighten yourself.

If you don't care about your privacy then just stamp and mail all your letters without sealed envelopes and put a loudspeaker on your phone's transmitter and receiver. Sarcasm 101.

Anyway, I ensure both my browsers, Chrome & Firefox respectively are not only automatically self-cleansing of all cookies and internet history, etc. upon closing them, but also alternately use two other snazzy privacy-related software on a daily basis (the free and excellent CCleaner and Auslogics BoostSpeed).

Each time you fire up your preferred browser it'll simply reload those (hopefully) legitimate cookies again anyway. But this rant isn't just about cookies folks. I'm on a roll here...

Also recommend getting the free extensions HTTPS Everywhere for both browsers plus Ghostery for Chrome to ensure your browser connection is encrypted and untrackable.

I've got nothing to hide. I'm just doing regular house cleaning and good computer maintenance this way to ensure and prevent the inevitable internet related nasties infecting my gear and wasting time dealing with what is easily preventable. Plus I'm solely responsible for guaranteeing my privacy and safety online - no one else is.

Sandboxie (although a tad tricky to configure) will protect you from any further nasties one can easily catch unawares from browsing in the virtual world.

And lastly, I always wear my tin-foil hat anytime I come near a computer connected to the internet. Just in case...;-)


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