Many people believe that HTTP cookies are dangerous or a violation of privacy. But HTTP cookies are not inherently dangerous. They only store information that you have provided to the website.
HTTP cookies or "magic" cookies are a tool used by web developers to store user submitted information across their website. It's important to understand that HTTP cookies are not inherently dangerous. Web developers cannot gain access to information you have not provided to them.
I Don't Think Cookies are Dangerous
I allow websites to write cookies to my hard drive because I don't think cookies are inherently dangerous. But there are a few steps I take to make sure that cookies are safe and not invading my privacy:
- I don't accept third-party cookies
- I frequently clear my cookies
- I'm careful about what forms I fill in
Some people prefer to be notified whenever the browser is writing a cookie, but the amount of cookies that are used these days makes that impractical. Plus, I like some of the things that cookies do for me, like remembering settings I've chosen on a website or saving a shopping cart while I decide if I'm going to buy something. I also like it when sites store my username as a cookie. I don't save passwords in cookies, but remembering the username saves me a step.
Cookies are Used to Track Customers
The most common type of cookie set is one that tells the website that this computer has been to this site in the past. This allows web developers to get a more accurate count of how many unique visitors they have. And depending on how long the cookies are set to expire, can tell them how long that computer was on the website or how many pages it visited while it was there.
Some people see this type of tracking as an invasion of privacy. But ask yourself these questions:
- Do you have and use a credit card, debit card or ATM card?
- Do you have and use any grocery store loyalty cards?
- Do you have and use any cash cards like "Starbucks Cards"?
- Do you write checks?
If you can answer yes to any of those questions, then your actions are already being tracked. And they are being tracked much more specifically than a cookie can track you.
What Cookies Can Store
Cookies can store the following types of information:
- Your Web browser and version
- Your operating system
- Your IP address (and from that possibly a close approximation of where you are browsing from)
- The date and time
- What page was visited using that browser and OS
- A unique ID that the website generates for you the first time your browser arrives
- Any information you provide via forms on the website
The credit card companies know your name, what you purchased, what store you were at, how much you spent, what your credit limit is, and more. While cookies can store that information, they can't store it if you don't provide it to the website.
Cookies Do Not Endanger Files on Your Hard Drive
Cookies are little text files (or lines in a text file) that are stored on your hard drive. They cannot execute code or act as a virus or malware. A cookie is a line of text that looks something like this:
.about.com TRUE / FALSE 1692181505 jsc 13
In essence, this says that the cookie named
jsc is served from anywhere on the
.about.com domain. It has a value of
13 and expires on June 9, 2028 at 10:47:06PM. No, I don't know how About.com is using this cookie, but honestly, I don't care. The most damage that this cookie could do to me is fill up needed space on my hard drive. And it's easy to delete them if I have that problem.
Privacy and Cookies
The only way a cookie can store private information is if you give it to the site. This could be through filling out a form, buying something, or joining a chat or forum on the site. If you don't want your private information to show up in a cookie, then you shouldn't put it in a web form.
If You're Still Worried About the Dangers of Cookies
First, don't take my word for it that cookies aren't particularly dangerous. Mary Landesman, About.com Guide to Antivirus Software wrote:
"I view cookies as mostly benign and often quite useful (customizing the content I see on my favorite websites, for example)..."
But if you are still worried about your privacy and cookies, you might want to look into getting a personal firewall or software to block information transmission across the internet. Some programs will block any submission of data you indicate is sensitive until you approve the submission.