Cookies: What they are and what they do

When you hear the word “cookie,”, the first thing that usually comes to mind is chocolate chip. But web cookies are another thing completely.

In this short article I’ll answer the usual questions that Softonic users have about these mysterious – yet sadly inedible – cookies.

What is a cookie?

A cookie is a small piece of data that a web site stores in your web browser. It looks like a small text file.

A browser can store thousands of them, and they can only be read by the web sites that created them, except when it comes to tracking cookies used by web advertising companies.

Who invented the cookie and why?

Cookies were created in 1994 by Lou Montulli, a Netscape employee, to avoid the limitations the internet had for identifying a computer when connected.

Since web sites have no way of knowing if two requests come from the same computer, they need to assign labels to be able to differentiate. This is where cookies come into play.

What are cookies for?

Cookies let a web site remember who you are and what you like. Cookies are required for a web site to function effectively for the user.

Some examples of things you can do with cookies:

  • Fill a virtual shopping cart
  • Change search preferences
  • Access a web site without having to enter a password
  • Customize the look of a web site
  • View ads relevant to your interests

Where are cookies stored?

A cookie is created when you browse a web site that requires information about you. It’s stored on your hard disk or in the computer’s memory. Cookies take up very little space, a maximum of 4KB per cookie (255 characters). Most are deleted after a period of time (they “expire”).

Do cookies pose a security risk?

No. Cookies don’t contain any executable code and therefore can’t do any harm to your data. By themselves, cookies are completely harmless.

Cookies do have privacy implications, however, so some antivirus applications mark them as suspicious, especially if your browser is set to a high sensitivity level.

What does a cookie know about me?

A cookie can only store information that you provide voluntarily or that is stored in your browser options. For example:

  • Usernames, email addresses and passwords are data you provide
  • Browser type, version and operating system are data the browser provides

There is a special type of cookie called a tracking or third-party cookie, that stores web sites you have browsed. These cookies are used by advertisers to display content targeted to your interests.

Should I delete my cookies?

No. It’s best not to delete all your cookies. If you do, many of your favorite web sites won’t function as before and you’ll have to log in again and reset your preferences.

Cookies that can be safely deleted are tracking or third-party cookies. You can delete them using the options interface found in all web browsers.

How do I know which pages have created cookies?

A simple way to know what cookies were created and what information is contained in them is to activate the Do Not Track option present in most browsers.

Do Not Track not only tells you what cookies are created by a page, but also lets you block the tracking action, making your browsing more private.

Can I browse without using cookies?

Using private or anonymous browsing, you can navigate without a trace. All modern browsers have a private browsing mode.

With private browsing enabled, web pages you visit and files you download are not stored on your computer in your browsing and download histories.

What other questions do you have about cookies?

Original article written by Fabrizio Ferri-Benedetti on Softonic ES.

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