What are cookies? Definition and meaning

Cookies are little tracking devices used by and for websites. They are simple ‘text files’ you can read using your PC’s Notebook program. Stored in your browser, they typically contain just two pieces of data: a site name and unique user ID.

A cookie is also a small hard cake made from stiff, sweet dough and baked. It is also a slang term for a person as in “She’s a tough cookie.” In North Carolina and some south Atlantic US state, it may refer to a doughnut. This article focuses on its IT (information technology) meaning.

Cookies monitor commonly used information to help an online user’s browser operate more efficiently. While not usually storing passwords, they frequently track browser history, usernames and other potential identifiers.

A cookie is a tiny file dropped by a browser into our hard drive when we visit a site. It contains records of our interactions.

When we enter a web address into a browser, a search is made for a cookie associated with 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.”

They do not collect personal data from the online user’s hardrive, such as contacts, bank stuff, photos etc. Cookies simply carry the data created by people’s browsing.

Cookies are stored in web browsers

The cookie is a small piece of data sent from the website you are visiting and stored in your web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Explorer, etc).

You can set Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer and other browsers to block cookies. You are in control.

The term was first coined by Lou Montulli, a web browser programmer who co-authored the text web browser called Lynx. ‘Cookie’ was derived from ‘magic cookie’ – a packet of data that a program receives and sends back unchanged, used by Unix programmers. Magic cookies derived from ‘fortune cookie’, which is a small biscuit containing an embedded message.

Cookies are not dangerous in themselves, like many people fear – they do not contain programs, i.e. viruses. However, they have the ability to ‘share’ this data over the Internet.

The first time you visit a website, a cookie is downloaded onto your computer. The next time you go to that website, your computer checks to determine whether it has a cookie that is relevant, i.e. one that contains the site name, and sends information contained within that cookie back to the site.

Cookies reveal your visiting history

The website then knows that this is not your first visit, and may in some cases tailor what appears on your screen taking into account that fact. It may be helpful to vary content depending on whether this is your first, second or 100th visit.

Without the cookie, the site would not know whether to send a page containing sensitive information, or require the visitor to authenticate himself or herself by logging in.

Some cookies might record how long a visitor has spent on each page of a website, which hyperlinks were clicked. Some even gather information regarding the visitor’s preferred color schemes and page layouts.

Some of the more sophisticated cookies can even store information on what is in a visitor’s shopping cart, adding items as he or she clicks.

In the vast majority of cases, the role of cookies is beneficial for both the website owner and the visitor. Without cookies, online shopping would be considerably more difficult.

Why all this cookie phobia?

So, why are so many people paranoid about them. In most cases it comes down to how important your privacy is. Do you want the business world as well as the government picking up information on your habits, and 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. Cookies may have information on people’s purchasing habits, and from that data specialized marketing lists of people’s names can be created.

When cookies first started being used there was a great deal of resistance. Some individuals viewed them as inherently sneaky and intrusive – your computer was being used to store your personal information, which could build a profile on you from your browsing habits.