Internet Cookies: What are they?

By Heather Gunn and Nathan Tinga

A computer “cookie” isn’t an actual cookie (we wish it was!), but it’s more formally known as an HTTP cookie, a web cookie, an Internet cookie or a browser cookie. 

The name is a shorter version of “magic cookie,” which is a term for a packet of data that a computer receives and then sends back without changing it. 

So, why do we need them? The purpose of a computer cookie is to help websites keep track of your visits and activity. But before you get worried, this isn’t always a bad thing. For example, many online retailers use cookies to keep track of the items in a user’s shopping cart as they explore the site. Without cookies, your shopping cart would reset to zero every time you clicked a new link on the site.

Most often, cookies can’t transfer viruses or malware to your computer. Because the data in a cookie doesn’t change when it travels back and forth, it has no way to affect how your computer runs.

That being said, some viruses and malware can disguise themselves as cookies, but these are quite rare and many browsers will defend your computer against them. 

You might also come across “zombie cookies” which are cookies that recreate themselves (come ‘back to life’) after being deleted. This usually isn’t an issue as they can’t really cause any harm. Third party cookies might also make it easier for other sites to look at where you go on the internet, but don’t stress over it.

If you want to get rid of some of the stored cookies, there is a way. In every browser, there are options to delete cookies, usually found with the options for clearing your browsing history. Clearing your browser history is one thing, but deleting cookies takes it a step further. Keep in mind though that deleting cookies can often erase saved passwords and auto-fill things on certain websites. 

Now that you know about web cookies, you should hopefully feel safer surfing the web!

Power up the Planet is an Edmonton based non-profit aiming to reduce e-waste in our community.

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