Putting cookie worries in context

Online privacy is something that should, and most likely is, near the top of most people’s minds as we meander through the websites that mystically and magically tie us all together. While online safety is a serious matter, misinformation can, and does, cause a lot of panic over some of the more harmless and mundane ways in which the Internet actually works.

In the latter half of the 1990s, pandemonium spread throughout the connected world regarding the use of “cookies” — these mysterious and malicious “things” that were tracking our every move and sharing our deepest and darkest secrets. Cookies went from being something no one knew anything about to Internet Public Enemy No. 1. They were blamed for a multitude of ills that might befall a computer. If a computer contracted a virus, surely there was a cookie to blame!

An informed public quickly learned that cookies weren’t as harmful as they might have been led to believe, but remnants of that explosive panic still continue to reverberate today.

A cookie is a nothing more than a small text file that is passed from a website to a user’s computer and is basically used as a means of identifying the user’s computer, or more specifically the user’s browser. It is important to note that the user remains anonymous. Think of cookies behaving the same way a radio transmitter tag around the neck of a migratory bird works — except in the case of the cookie, no one really knows anything about the bird other than it moves between point A and B, occasionally visiting points C and D.

Despite what you may have heard, cookies are not harmful to the operation of a computer either. They aren’t viruses, and they won’t cause a system to lose performance or computing power, or otherwise crash. Cookies are literally just bits of text and cannot be executed. The only physical detriment of a cookie is that it will take up some space on the computer’s hard drive, but by their very nature and use, cookies are small — 4KB or smaller. At that size, a computer would need to store cookies from millions of sites before there were any noticeable storage capacity issues. Most Web browsers store cookies in a dedicated folder that has a maximum size set as a percentage of total hard drive size, usually in the range of 2 percent to 4 percent.

There are basically two types of cookies in use on the Web: First- and third-party. Within those two basic types there are a few different forms of cookies such as session and persistent cookies, but we won’t go down those paths today.

First-party cookies are set by the primary domain that you are visiting. If you visit www.someretailoutlet.com, then Some Retail Outlet Inc. is probably setting a cookie in your browser to accomplish a number of things: anonymously identifying your browser as having visited the site, authenticating you as a user (if you have an account with the site), personalizing your experience at the site, and collecting anonymous demographic information. This information is used to help enhance your experience on the site, which in turn, will hopefully lead to you spending more time and/or money on the site.

Where first-party cookies are set by the domain that you are visiting, third-party cookies are set by … well, a third-party. While I wasn’t able to come up with hard statistics, it would be safe to say that the majority of third-party cookies are used to serve up advertisements on websites that you visit. You no doubt have seen this in action: You visit a retail site and browser through some product pages. You buy, you don’t buy, it doesn’t really matter. You head over to a news site to check a sports score or trade deal, and you notice that in the sidebar there is an ad for one of the products you just looked at. That is a third-party cookie at work.

Most modern Web browsers will allow the user to block both first- and third-party cookies and just third-party cookies. A quick Internet search of your particular browser will provide a litany of instructions on how to do that. Next time around, we will explore the drawbacks of cookies and the manners in which they might be exploited for malicious intent.

Wailes is an interactive developer at Burns Marketing Communications in Johnstown. If you have questions or would like to suggest a topic for a future Geek Chic column, email him at news@ncbr.com.

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