Due to privacy concerns on the Internet, cookies began to attract media attention in the 2000s, and the discussion continues today.
However, cookies provide functionality that greatly simplifies the exploration of the Web. They improve the user experience and make it easier to acquire accurate information about visitors to a site, which is why virtually all major websites use them.
In this article, we’ll look at the fundamental cookie technology and some of the functionality they make possible.
Internet cookies: what are they?
I came across a definition of cookies in an in-depth article on internet privacy on a big name site. I will paraphrase the definition, which was as follows:
Websites store programs known as cookies on your hard drive. When a website chooses, it can extract all the data the cookie has collected by staying on your computer and collecting information about you and everything you do online.
Such definitions are quite common in the media. The problem is that it’s not accurate. Cookies cannot function as programs because they are not programs. They are therefore unable to obtain information on their own. Moreover, they are unable to access your system to get personal data about you.
A correct description of a cookie is as follows: A text file called a cookie can be saved by a web server on a user’s hard drive. Cookies allow a website to save data on a user’s computer for later retrieval. Name-value pairs are used to hold data bits.
For example, a website might create a unique identification number for each visitor and then use a cookie file to store that identification number on each user’s computer.
You can see all the cookies that are stored on your computer if you use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to visit the web. The c:windows cookies directory is where you will often find them. I’m seeing 233 files right now when I browse to this directory on my computer. There is a text file for each website that has installed cookies on my computer, and each file is made up of name-value pairs.
Each of these files is a simple text file, as you can see in the directory. By looking at the file name, you can determine which website downloaded the file to your computer (the information is also stored in the file itself). Each file can be opened by simply clicking on it.
How is cookie data collected?
Cookie data is just name-value pairs that a website saves to your hard drive. All cookie data is just that. The data is stored on the website, and then sent back. A web page can only accept data that it already has on your computer. It is not able to access any other cookies or data on your computer.
This is how the data is transmitted:
- When you enter the URL of a website in your browser, it sends a request to the site in question (see the article on how web servers work ). For example, when you enter the URL https://www.amazon.com in your browser, the Amazon server is contacted and its home page is requested.
- The browser then searches for a cookie file that Amazon has placed on your computer. Your browser will pass the URL and each name-value combination contained in an Amazon cookie file, if one exists, to Amazon’s server. It will not transmit any cookie information if it cannot locate a cookie file.
- The cookie information and the page request are sent to Amazon’s web server. Amazon may use name-value pairs if submitted.
- Amazon knows you’ve never been there before if no name-value pairs are returned. Before sending the name-value pairs to your computer in the header of the web page it is transmitting, the server establishes a new identifier for you in Amazon’s database. Name-value pairs are stored on your computer’s hard drive.
- When you visit a website and request a page, the web server has the option of modifying existing name-value pairs or adding new ones.
The server may communicate additional data in addition to the name-value pair. An expiration date is one. The path is yet another (so the site can associate different cookie values with different parts of the site).
You are responsible for this procedure. Your browser settings can be modified to alert you whenever a website sends you name-value pairs. You can then accept or reject these values. (Cookie banner when you arrive on a site)
How are cookies used?
Cookies were created to address an important issue faced by website developers. A cookie, in its broadest sense, allows a website to save status data on your computer. This data allows a website to track the current state of your browser. An ID is just a small piece of status data that lets a website know that you’ve been here before if it’s present on your computer. The website has recorded the fact that “your browser has visited the site at least once” and therefore knows your ID.
Are there any problems with cookies?
Although cookies are not a perfect mechanism, they allow many things to be achieved that would not be possible without them.
That being said, here are some of the weaknesses of cookies.
People often share devices– Any device used in a public place, as well as many devices used in the office or at home, are shared by several users. Let’s say you make an online transaction using a public computer, such as a library. The retailer will place a cookie on the device, and subsequently someone may attempt to use your account to make a purchase from the retailer. That’s why stores often display prominent warnings about it. Nevertheless, errors can occur. I once used my wife’s computer to make a purchase on Amazon, for example. Later, she went to Amazon and mistakenly believed that by clicking the “buy it now” button, she could purchase a book with just one click. This is not a problem on a system like a Windows NT workstation or a UNIX system that uses accounts correctly. Accounts distribute each user’s cookies. In other operating systems, accounts are much less siled, and that’s a problem.
Cookies are deleted: If you have a problem with your browser and contact technical support, they will probably advise you to start by deleting all temporary Internet files from your computer. All your cookie files are lost when you do this. The next time you visit a website, it will assume that you are a new user and assign you a new cookie. This can make it difficult to restore previously saved preferences and tends to skew the site’s statistics on new users versus returning ones. This is why some websites require you to register; if you create an account with a username and password, you can log in and recover your preferences even if your cookie file is lost. Recovery is not possible if the preference settings are saved directly to the computer (as in the 20 minute weather example above). For this reason, many websites now simply store an identification value on the user’s computer and store all personal information in a central database.
Many machines: An average person uses different internet access points. For example, I have a computer at work, a computer at home, and a laptop for travel. I will have three separate cookie files on each of these three devices unless the website is specifically designed to address this issue. Any website I visit will identify me as three different users on all three devices. Setting preferences three times can be frustrating. Again, having the same account on three devices can be simple if a website accepts registration and manages preferences centrally, but site designers should take this into account when creating the website. You will notice that your history listings change if you use one computer to access the history URL mentioned in the previous section and another. This is because the server gives you two credentials, one for each computer.
Without becoming a strict opponent of all cookies, it is good to be vigilant when you are presented with a banner called cookies notice. Do not accept without questioning the usefulness of the cookies installed.
Also Read: No More Third-party Cookies. Who Is Winning?