What is a Cookie?

When the public internet as we know it first began, websites were little more than collections of static, hand-coded pages with text and images. Forming a kind of “infinite book,” what made websites different than simple electronic text was the ability to link to other pages, which is why the core elements of websites are still referred to as “pages.”

Over time, that began to change. Instead of simply displaying static text and visual elements, websites began to become more interactive. Instead of just “reading” a webpage in a static way like simple text in a book, web pages began to interact with a visitor’s browsers. And one of the key way that this is done today is through the use of cookies.

Essentially, a cookie is a small section of computer code (transmitted as text) that a website sends to a visitor’s browser that is then downloaded and stored. Perhaps the easiest way to think of it is like handing out name tags to people at a conference. The name tag (cookie) allows the organizers (the website) to keep track of the attendees.

For instance, websites will use cookies to retain usernames and login information so that you don’t have to input this data every time you revisit the website. Since the cookie serves to identify you, the website then recognizes you and serves you different information such as allowing you to log in to your account on that website or post comments. Many of the world’s most popular e-commerce websites like Amazon rely on cookies to store things like financial data, too, so that you can buy products without having to re-introduce your credit card and shipping address information every time you browse the site.

Cookies, in general, are designed to make the experience of browsing and visiting websites easier and more comfortable. Even if all the cookie is doing is remembering who you are and what you last read on the website in order to see new content or replies to your comments, this is still considered a net benefit by most internet users. And affiliate marketing programs, which work by paying for referrals, use cookies in order to track those referrals and earn the affiliate money.

That being said, cookies have evolved to do many more things than simply improve the experience of visiting a website. For instance, some cookies now linger and continue to record information about your browsing even after you leave the website that sent the cookie and visit an unrelated website. And some cookies are designed to monitor your activities in order to build a profile about you in order to target you for advertising.

That being said, not all cookies are the same. Some cookies expire after a specified period of time. In other instances, cookies remain permanent until you take steps to delete them. And some cookies are automatically deleted when you close the browser application. All modern browsers allow you to access analytical information to display which cookies are currently installed and active and delete them, if you wish, in a procedure known as “clearing” cookies.

Clearing Cookies On Chrome

For the Google Chrome browser, click on “Preferences” and then “More.” Next, click on “More Tools” and then select “clear browsing data.” You’ll then need to select/tick the box next to “Cookies and other site data” in order to have your actions affect the cookies. Chrome will give you the option of clearing browsing data (which includes cookies) for a given period of time or clearing all of them.

Clearing Cookies On Safari

For the Safari browser, click on “Preferences” from the main menu and then navigate to the “Privacy” tab.” From there, you’ll be given the option to “Remove all Website Data” where you can select which data you want to remove, including installed cookies.

Clearing Cookies On Firefox

For the Firefox browser, click on the main menu and then select “Preferences.” From there, select “Privacy and Security” where you’ll be given the option to clear cookies. You’ll also see how much storage the cookies (along with other site data such as the cache) is taking on your computer.

All modern web browsers will allow you to choose how and if you want to accept cookies in the future. For instance, you can choose to never allow cookies, to automatically allow all cookies, or have the browser prompt you each time you visit a website to determine whether or not you want a cookie from that website installed on your computer.

Note: Browsers with a private/incognito mode automatically turn off all cookie acceptance and use. If you want a one-time browsing session without using any cookies and also without having to change your browser’s settings, you can use incognito/private mode. This is particularly useful if you access the internet via Wi-Fi from outside your home/school/office network as it is possible, in some circumstances, for access providers to intercept and read cookies.

And taking effect on May 25, 2018, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) now mandates that all websites which use cookies ask permission from the user (theoretically, only users from the EU, but in practice, all users) before installing a cookie. Because the GDPR is the most forward-looking piece of privacy legislation in the world, many websites which are outside the EU are also now asking permission to install cookies, too.

Technically, the cookies discussed in this article are known as either “browser cookies” or “internet cookies.” This is because the term “cookie” was originally coined by Lou Montulli in 1994, a UNIX programmer who was familiar with the term “magic cookie.” In the UNIX programming language, “magic cookies” are small sections of code sent and returned by a computer that are unchanged in transit.

The term “magic cookies” originated in 1979 by programmers in the C programming language as a kind of token or “ticket number” to track data exchanges between two entities. The “magic cookie” was similar to a ticket or coat check token given out in order to distinguish and chronologically track interactions between two entities. No one is quite sure why the term “magic cookie” was chosen for this purpose, but the similarity between a magic cookie’s functionality and the browser cookie’s (known just as “cookies” by most people today) was where the name cookie came. But no one is quite sure why the term “magic cookie” was first chosen.

There are also flash cookies (used in a similar fashion by websites that use Adobe’s Flash) to store user data and “signal cookies” which are used to prevent malefactors from illegally accessing computer networks by a technique called “Sigreturn-oriented programming” or SROP. Similar to (browser) cookies, signal cookies are used as authentication tokens in order to verify data exchanges.

The very first (browser) cookie appeared with the launch of the Netscape browser in 1994. Cookies became a widespread aspect of internet browsing when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer began using cookies in 1995. In 1998, Montulli, the programmer who invented the term “cookie” (referring to browser cookies) successfully patented the concept.

In 2016, Google created something called the “same-site cookie,” which differs from regular cookies because it can only track user activity and information on the same website that issued the cookie. This was designed as a way to improve security and stop cookies from tracking activity (or initiating harmful actions) after a user leaves a website.

When you visit a website (and your browser is set to accept cookies), it’s important to keep in mind that your browser might actually be installing several different cookies at once. The website itself might be installing a cookie (called a “first-party” cookie) while advertising banners or other third-party data displayed on the website is installing their own cookies (called, naturally enough, “third-party” cookies). There have been documented cases of some websites installing as many as 800 cookies on a user’s computer during a single visit.

Note: Most modern browsers allow the option for automatically blocking (refusing) third-party cookies while still accepting first-party cookies.

Interestingly enough, despite their ubiquity as part of the modern web browsing experience on the internet, there are no fixed requirements for what a cookie is or how it needs to be formatted. Each website or developer can design cookies to their own needs, and some cookies are constantly being updated with every action performed by the user.