By Praveen Kannan and Anna Strokolyst The Hotspot Shield team believes the internet should be open and secure …
Almost every major company’s website –and a host of private websites, for that matter – use browser cookies. A browser cookie is a small file that’s downloaded into your browser’s operational files in order to store some basic information about you, your web browsing history and your personal preferences.
These cookies, for the most part, are designed to help the websites you visit operate more efficiently, leading to shorter download times and faster web surfing experiences. As an example, if you enter your name, email address and interests into a form on one of your favorite websites, a browser cookie might be used to save all of this information for the future. Then, when you return, the information can be resent to the site, saving you the hassle of re-entering it.
But that said, there are quite a few misconceptions about browser cookies. Some people believe they are all harmful viruses that should be eliminated at all costs. And while there are certainly a number of browser cookies that can be malicious, there are plenty (the majority, in fact), that are harmless and simply serve to make your experience on that particular website as enjoyable as possible.
Common Misconceptions about Cookies
One of the most common misconceptions about browser cookies is that they scour your computer’s hard drive looking for any and all personally identifiable information about you. This simply isn’t true.
Viruses – such as malware, spyware, and even a few Trojan horses – are what attempt to navigate your computer for that information, but they are not the same as browser cookies. Yes, there are a number of malicious websites out there whose only purpose is to infect unsuspecting computers with their programs in order to mine for personal information that could be used to access your financial accounts and other sensitive areas.
But browser cookies in general are certainly not viruses and should not be confused for such.
Another commonly misunderstood fact about browser cookies is that they don’t actually store any information about you that you don’t enter into the website’s forms. In other words, unless you enter your full name, the company’s cookie isn’t going to have that information stored in it. At the end of the day, the only information that’s stored in cookies is the information you give them!
So What Do Cookies Do?
Cookies track your behavior on a particular website and store any information that you do enter. Did you visit the “About Us” page or the “Contact Us” page of a given website? Did you spend a considerable amount of time on a particular product page on an ecommerce website? Did you purchase something? If so, what did you purchase? Cookies can store all of this information and more.
As you browse around the Internet, you’ll notice that some of the advertisements that you see tend to feature the same items or services that you recently looked up – either through a search engine or directly at a particular website. These ads are focused for you based on your Internet browsing or search history and are driven by browser cookies.
Discovering the Purpose of Cookies
Right now, I want you to open your current web browser, make sure that all of your usernames and passwords are saved for any website that you’ve visited and care to gain access to again in the future.
Now, read through the rest of this process first before taking any action, as you may not want to actually carry out the entire exercise. Even if you choose not to, the idea is to give you a sense of what cookies can do for you.
Once everything is saved, open the “Tools” section of your web browser. For Internet Explorer, select “Internet Options” under the “Tools” drop down menu option. For Firefox, it will be listed as “Options” under the “Tools” menu. Each browser has its own process for accessing this folder, but they tend to operate in similar fashion.
Look for “Privacy” or “Security” options. Here, you’ll see an option to either turn off cookies (disable cookies) or tracking, as well as a place to delete your history and/or individual cookies. Delete your entire browsing history and all the cookies that have been stored by your browser. (To learn more about deleting cookies, visit aboutcookies.org).
Next, visit any website that you’ve spent a lot of time on in the past and you should see a difference in the experience. You may have to re-enter a username and password, or you may have to search for items that had been automatically displayed for you in the past. In essence, you’ve basically rebooted your web browser and are now seeing the experience again as you once did when you first started surfing with your browser or computer.
When you try this exercise, you should begin to see how there can be a great benefit to having cookies downloaded to your computer.
Are All Cookies Safe?
No, not all cookies are safe. Some are malicious and are intended to track certain behaviors on your part. These can be used for marketing purposes, especially if you enter your name or an email address in a form. If you receive a great deal of junk mail in your inbox, but you can’t imagine why you’re getting so many messages, it could be the result of a cookie that grabbed the information you entered and then turned around and sold to an email list broker.
Companies often sell email addresses to other companies. It’s a way that they still make money, even if you don’t purchase from them – and cookies can drive this behavior.
How to Take Control of Your Browser’s Cookies
Aside from taking the steps mentioned above to delete your cookies, you can set different levels of cookie security for your particular web browsers. You can request that your web browser not allow cookies of any kind. However, some websites may not operate properly if this feature is enabled and you may be required to enter information every time that you open a web page.
A good example of this would be if you check your local weather through a particular website. If you disable cookies, then you’ll be required to enter your zip code or city and state every time you visit the website in the future in order to get your local weather.
You can also set different levels of acceptability when it comes to cookies. Low, medium, and high are all optional settings for IE, for example. If you only want the most important cookies stored on your computer, you could set the level to “High” in order to minimize the risk of storing damaging cookies.
You can also delete cookies individually. This option provides you with more control in terms of determining which websites are allowed to track your behavior and information online, though it represents a more time-consuming alternative.
The more you know about cookies, the more control you’ll gain. And when you have more control over your cookies, you’ll have more control over securing your personal information and determining the web experience for you as an individual. It’s up to you to decide who has your best intentions at heart and to protect yourself, your personal information and your computer from cookie-related threats.