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What is an Internet Cookie

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Animation of two men holding an actual cookie standing on a laptop.

Posted on 07/19/2018 at 10:00 AM

Most people upon hearing the word “cookie” probably think of a delectably sweet bakery item that pairs brilliantly with a glass of milk. 
However, in the world of technology, the word means something a little different. Today, we are covering Internet Cookies! We’ll discuss what cookies are, how they work, go over some various types and their relation to the hot topic of data privacy. We’ll also debunk some common misconceptions about them.

But first, let’s get some terminology straight!

  • Session: A session is the amount of time a user spends interacting with a specific website.
  • Browser: A browser is a program which is used to read HTML files and to navigate the World Wide Web (ex. Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox etc.)
  • Cookies: Cookies are small pieces of information (data) stored by the browser.

Cookies at a Glance…

When you, the user, begin a browsing session, the website begins generating cookies that the browser will collect along the session. At this point, the browser has the capability to store these cookies. As the user continues to navigate through the World Wide Web, the browser will maintain these stored cookies for use in future sessions by that user. When the user finally returns, and the browser interacts with that website again, it presents the cookies that it collected the first time the two interacted. 

What Kind of Information Can Cookies Store?

There are many types of information cookies can store. Some cookies are used for marketing purposes, but those are differentiated from cookies that store information to make your website navigation as functional as possible. There are a number of everyday features that use cookies. Here are a few examples of “harmless” cookie usage if a user is logged into the website: 

  • When your favorite pizza joint remembers your order
  • When you don’t have to fill out your address every time you order pizza
  • When you get to keep track of rewards points with your favorite pizza place

Some Common Misconceptions about Cookies

Because not everyone has a solid understanding of cookies, naturally, there are some misconceptions out there about how they operate and what they are, exactly. This is especially relevant in the discussion of data privacy and security.  Let’s explore these misconceptions.

Cookies can carry viruses

A cookie cannot carry a virus. This misconception comes from the fact that some web pages can initiate a file download without the user’s consent. In these cases, it is not a cookie that initiates the file download, but some other trigger within the code of websites that are unsecured and/or compromised.

Cookies are “spies”

No, we aren’t talking about the cookie spies from a certain film with lovable and slightly disturbing yellow sidekicks (Despicable Me). Some people believe that cookies are harmful lines of code that essentially “spy” on your [the user’s] internet activity. However, as you know by now, cookies are just lines of text that are stored in your browser. They have no surveillance capabilities whatsoever.

Your cookies know who you are

This misconception comes from the fact that cookies store information based on your personal session. This does not mean that the session information is tied to any personal information that will identify you. In fact, most cookies require additional information [for example, an IP address] to even begin to tie the session to an individual’s personal information.

This article was intended to serve as a crash course on cookies in their most basic form. Please keep in mind that this is just the very tip of the iceberg.  We hope this brief explanation will inspire and empower you to develop a better understanding of the various cookies your website processes, and how exactly the data they store is used.

If you have questions regarding the specific cookies your website uses, please feel free to contact our data privacy officer.

Categories: Safety and Security

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