Friday, March 26, 2010

The Dough on Cookies

Almost every day a customer will inform me that they deleted their cookies in an attempt to clean their computer up or make it run faster. That always makes me chuckle just a little. I can’t help but wonder where that myth started.

Cookies are mostly-harmless little text files that are the equivalent of an electronic name badge for each website you visit. They cannot damage your computer or make it run slow. Here is an example of a typical cookie: Set-Cookie:RMID=732423sdfs73242;expires=Fri, 31-Dec-2010 23:59:59 GMT; path=/;

There are two basic types of cookies: “persistent” and “session” cookies. Persistent cookies are cookies that remain on your computer even after you leave a website. If you’ve ever been to a website such as Amazon that stores your log-in password and welcomes you by name then you are familiar with persistent cookies.

Persistent cookies aren’t completely harmless. Not long ago, the National Security Agency was caught using persistent tracking cookies on their website. These tracking cookies had the potential of recording visitor surfing habits after they left the government site. Privacy advocates discovered it and raised Cain about it. The NSA admitted its mistake and stopped the practice immediately and the government subsequently instituted a policy to stop tracking users. However, some other federal agencies have obtained waivers to sidestep the policy. Tinfoil hat wearers will get excited about this but I don’t much care. In this digital age, privacy is non-existent, anyway.

Persistent tracking cookies are sometimes used to report your surfing habits to an internet advertising agency. With the knowledge they gain from your surfing habits, they can formulate more efficient marketing strategies. Some less-reputable agencies can cause use the information to cause your computer to display an annoying pop-up ad based on your surfing history.

Then there are session cookies. Session cookies expire as soon as you leave the website. You receive a session cookie from every website you visit. If you visit my silly little website at, I can glean some interesting information from your cookie such as which pages you visit on my site, how long you stayed on each page, what operating system you’re running, what browser you use and what color underwear you are wearing.

Almost all websites collect this kind of information but generally can’t gather anything personal unless you voluntarily divulge that information. All my website knows about you is that “a computer” visited my site and stayed logged in to my “swimsuit model pictures” page for three hours and “my life story” page for .0002 seconds using a Windows XP computer and Internet Explorer web browser. From that, I can assume that you are more interested in looking at scantily clad swimsuit models than my exciting life story but that is about it.

You can certainly delete all your cookies on a daily basis but that will really be more of an inconvenience to you rather than doing much to protect your privacy. Any decent antivirus program will scan for harmful tracking cookies and delete them for you. AVG is one such product.

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