Cookies have gotten a bad reputation, but they are harmless. A cookie is a small file of text information that is placed on your computer by a website. The information allows the website to function correctly while you are browsing through the website’s pages, and usually consists of data that you have entered on a previous visit to a particular website, such as a username. The website can then use information stored in its database associated with your username to customize page displays and content that you see. Information in a cookie can only be read and used by the website that placed it on your computer.
The main purpose of cookies is to allow a website to keep track of the items that you have placed into their shopping cart. The contents of the shopping cart are not in the cookie; the cookie contains an identifier that is associated with the shopping cart contents in the website’s database. Cookies are also used to allow you to logon to a website, and remain logged on while you are posting to a forum and reading any responses.
In most cases, cookies are created on your computer to benefit you and the website you are visiting. This type of cookie is known as a first party cookie. Another kind of cookie, a third party cookie, is placed on your computer for the benefit of advertisers rather than for your benefit. When you visit a website, any advertisements that are displayed are generated by a different website, or a third party. This third party will place a cookie onto your computer that allows them to track what websites you visit to try to customize the advertisements that you see as you browse.
Neither type of cookie poses a threat to your computer. Cookies do not contain programs and cannot be used to run a virus or other any other type of dangerous software on your computer. However, many people dislike having anyone track their movements on the Internet, especially advertisers. Most experts agree that allowing first party cookies is safe; they pose no threat to your privacy. However, since third party cookies are used to build a profile of Internet activity that is associated with a specific computer, you may want to block them. Many browsers allow you to block third party cookies.
The browsers that most people use, such as Internet Explorer and Firefox, provide tools to allow you to delete the cookies from your computer after you have finished browsing the Internet. For Internet Explorer, click on the Tools menu located on the Internet Explorer toolbar and select Internet Options. The resulting page allows you to delete the cookies that have been placed on your computer. You can also get to this menu from the Windows Control Panel by clicking on the Internet Options icon. Firefox users also have a Tools menu that allows cookies to be deleted.