Dwight Watt - Newspaper Article #61 6/23/2010

Question: What are cookies?


Cookies are small files on your machine that are used as you look at stuff on the Internet. Cookies can be helpful to you, but they can also be a threat to your privacy.

Cookies are saved on your computer by some web sites. Usually they contain information about your browsing habits on that site so that they can make it easier for you to see what you want. For instance weather sites will remember the zip codes of you searched for weather on as usually we are looking for weather in the same city. News sites will remember if you preferred domestic or international news.

Other sites will keep information that you shopped at to aid in shopping but here is where people get concerned. It will remember the items you looked at, easier to look again, but also easy for others to look on your computer and see what looking at. Some will keep your name and address information in a cookie so every time you order you do not have to re-enter (many keep this in a secure file on their server, but that raises issues also) and some keep your credit card info here.

To read the cookies on your machine a person would need to be able to access your machine either in person or across the Internet (usually this is not real simple as they are address changes at your modem and hopefully you have a firewall (Windows or other) running that will slow them down). Then they have to know how that cookie is set up to get info from it. It is just data that is unlabeled. It might look like adwatt30401307281986. If you look at that in context of this article you may guess a few of the items but the rest probably not. It is my initials and last name and then the zipcodes of two papers that print this article and then the year of my pickup. You might have gotten the first few, but I bet you had no idea what 1986 was.

You can block cookies from being written on your machine. However that will prevent you using some Internet web sites that require cookies. You can remove the cookies on your machine in Internet Explorer by going to Tools, Internet Options, Delete, Cookies. You can also block cookies by going to Tools, Internet Options, Privacy, Advanced and then choosing to accept or block cookies.

Thanks to Bo for the question.