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Website cookies – definition and meaning

Website cookies are little tracking devices that websites and browsers use. They are simple ‘text files’ you can read using your PC’s Notebook program. Your browser stores them. Website cookies typically contain two pieces of data: First, a website name; and second, a unique user ID.

Rather than ‘website cookies,’ we can simply say ‘cookies.’ However, do not confuse the term with a small hard cake made from stiff, sweet dough.

Website cookies monitor information we commonly use. They help our browser operate more efficiently. While not usually storing passwords, they frequently track browser history, usernames, and other potential identifiers.

A browser is a program that we use to navigate on the internet and visit websites. For example, Explorer, Safari, Chrome, and Firefox are browsers.

When we enter a web address into a browser, it searches for a cookie with data on that website.

According to TechTerms.com:

“A cookie is a small amount of data generated by a website and saved by your web browser. Its purpose is to remember information about you, similar to a preference file created by a software application.”

“While cookies serve many functions, their most common purpose is to store login information for a specific site.”

Website cookies - imaging with description
Website cookies are small files dropped by a browser into our hard drive when we visit websites. They contain records of our interactions.

The website cookie does not collect personal data from the online user’s hard drive. For example, it does not collect your banking details, contact addresses, and photographs. Cookies simply carry the data we create by browsing.

Website cookies sit in web browsers

The cookie is a small piece of data that a website sends while you are visiting it. Your web browser stores it.

Lou Montulli, a web browser programmer, first coined the term ‘cookie.’ Montulli co-authored Lynx, a text web browser.

The term came from ‘magic cookie.’ A magic cookie is a packet of data that a program receives and sends back unchanged. Unix programmers use them. Magic cookies came from the term ‘fortune cookie.’

Website cookies are not dangerous in themselves. However, some people fear them. They do not contain nasty programs such as viruses. However, they can ‘share’ their data over the Internet.

The first time you visit a website, your computer downloads a website cookie. It stores that cookie in your browser.

The next time you go to that website, your browser checks to determine whether it has a relevant cookie. In other words, one that contains the site name, and sends that cookie’s data back to the site.

Cookies reveal your visiting history

If there is a website cookie, the website then knows that this is not your first visit. It may subsequently tailor what appears on your screen to what you did during your last visit.

For example, it may be helpful to vary content. Content may change depending on whether this is your first, second, or 100th visit.

Without the website cookie, the site would not know whether or not to send a page containing sensitive information. Without the cookie, the website would not know whether visitors must authenticate themselves by logging in.

A cookie might record how long a visitor has spent on each page of a website. It may also have data on which hyperlinks the visitor clicked. Some may even gather information regarding the visitor’s favorite color schemes.

In fact, sophisticated cookies can store information on visitors’ shopping carts, adding items as they click.

The role of cookies is beneficial for both the website owner and the visitor. In fact, without cookies, online shopping would be considerably more difficult.

Why the cookie phobia?

Some people, however, do not like cookies. They believe the website cookie infringes on our privacy.

They do not want businesses as well as the government picking up information on our habits. Above all, they do not want them storing that data.

There is nothing sinister about what data cookies gather about you. Companies that are selling products related to, for example, gardening, want to aim their marketing at garden lovers.

Website cookies may have information on people’s purchasing habits. From that data, one can create marketing lists.

When cookies first appeared, there was a great deal of resistance. Some people viewed them as sneaky and intrusive. Forces were using our computers to store personal information.

Website cookies could build a profile on us from our browsing habits. Many people wondered how sinister these forces were.

Video – What are internet cookies?

This Guardian video explains what internet cookies are.