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Internet Cookies: What are they and why do websites use them?

Internet Cookies: What are they and why do websites use them?

If you browse the internet or work on a computer, it’s likely that most days you come across ‘cookies’. Not the edible kind that may appear on your desk, the ones that pop up when you first enter a website. When cookies were first introduced, there was a lot of skepticism around them with the popular belief they were intrusive spying mechanisms tracking every move you make on your computer. In reality, they are a harmless device that makes browsing easier.

Contrary to popular belief they are not big scary programs eating all your data. They don’t actually do much at all. Cookies are simply ‘text files’ which you can actually read using the ‘Notebook’ program on your PC. They contain simple data usually just the site name and a unique user ID. That’s it.

How do they work?

When visiting a site for the first time that uses cookies you may notice a pop up notice about cookies. Firstly when you visit the site, a cookie is downloaded onto your computer. You may notice that if you visit that site again, the cookie pop up doesn’t appear. This is because the cookie contains relevant information linking to the site, so when your PC checks to see if it has the cookie already, it sends the information back to the site. The site in turn, then ‘know’ you’ve visited before and in most cases, tailors your experience. For example, the site may vary the content you see based on how many times you’ve visited the site. Simple right?

The Good

Some cookies are more advanced. For example, they may record how long you visited the site, links you’ve clicked on and even preferences for layouts and colours. Some also store data on what you may have put into your shopping cart to tailor what you see, making your experience easier. The general role of a cookie is beneficial with the sole purpose of making your interaction with frequently visited websites, smoother. And to no extra effort on your part, what’s the issue?

The Bad

The only issue with cookies is how you feel about organisations and the government storing information about you. There’s nothing secret about the information gathered using cookies, but you may not be comfortable with the idea of your name being added to marketing lists or you being targeted for special offered or tailored online shopping experiences. You have the right to decline if you wish, but if it’s only benefiting your time spent online, let them be.


What the law says

The majority of modern websites use cookies and it’s likely you’ve never paid much attention to them running in the background as you browse, which is perfectly fine. As of May 2012, and EU law now requires all sites that use cookies to seek your permission to use cookies and store your data. When a cookie pop-up appears, in most cases you can simply click to say you understand the cookie policy, or ignore it if you choose to.

In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) closely monitors sites to make sure that they comply with this legislation, so there will be no avoiding the regulations. If you wish to make changes to the way cookies are used on your PC, you can. Click on the ‘tools’ menu of your internet browser but there’s no real reason to block cookies as your privacy and data are protected.

Why are they called cookies?

Unfortunately, internet cookies don’t take there name due to their delicious chocolatey tasting nature. The real reason they are called cookies is actually unknown. There are a few theories as to why:

– Hansel and Gretel theory: If you’re familiar with the children’s story you’ll know Hansel and Gretel used cookie crumbs to mark their tracks through the forest so they knew where they had been. This story mirrors the way internet cookies are used to track your activity online

-Magic Ticket Cookie theory: This is another story that refers to programmers years ago, used the name magic cookie to refer to a short piece of data that passed between programs. The contents couldn’t be seen and usually not accessed until the program has passed the file back to the sender. So the file is used like a ticket to identify a particular transaction or information. Similar to the cookies we know today.

-Cookie Monster theory: Another story suggests that when a clever programmer left his company, weird things started to happen with the computers. Every now and again the computer system would stop and the screen displayed a message saying: “Gimme a cookie”. The system wouldn’t return to normal until the person operating the computer would enter the word ‘cookie’ into the system. The root cause couldn’t be changed unless a complete rewrite was done, so it was decided to leave the code where it was. And thus, computer cookies where born.

Whatever the real reason is for cookie, they’re no more harmful than the ones sat in your tummy!

References : www.bbc.co.uk   www.cookiecontroller.com