If you have ever been curious, you may have noticed Internet browsers have an option, usually under a 'tools' or 'settings' menu, which allows you to choose between accepting cookies in your browser or not. These cookies are certainly not biscuits. What your browser asks you is whether you agree to allow websites to store certain information in your computer to use it later. More, below...
What are cookies
A cookie is just a fancy name for a small text file Internet browsers store in your computer cache. In these small text files, the browser stores a little information about you that the websites you visit need. When I say "a little information", what I mean is that information which allows the server you connect to, to recognize, among others, the following things:
+ Whether you have logged into your account or not
+ The preferences you have saved
+ The browser you are using to see their site
If these files weren't there, the websites you visit wouldn't know whether you have logged in to see your e-mail in your account number one or number two; or whether you have asked your favourite video streaming site to show you HD videos instead of the common ones. If you have ever asked your browser to remember your user name, it was a cookie which did the magic.
What's best, you can delete your cookies whenever you want.
Are cookies safe to accept?
All in all, yes. A cookie is not able to make a general review of your computer and submit it to a thief, like a trojan horse virus does. A cookie cannot store information you have not provided the web page you visited, either directly or indirectly. Among the data you provide to a website directly, you can count the user preferences you ask the computer to store for a certain website, or your user name or password for your e-mail address. Among the details you provide indirectly, you can count the browser you are using, the time you visit a site, or your IP address.
In addition, you must know all cookies have an expiration date (after which they are erased), and a general security measure: only those websites which generate them are able to read them. In plain English, if you visit Heptagrama.com and this site leaves a cookie in your computer, only Heptagrama.com can see its content. All other websites won't even learn it exists.
Despite this, you must know you usually surf the Internet visiting, indirectly, more sites than the ones you click to visit. This takes us to a mandatory word of warning.
A word of warning about cookies
The fact you surf the Internet seeing more than a site at the time usually exposes you to receiving more cookies in your computer than what you would be usually aware of. This website, for instance, uses a few services provided by websites I don't manage myself: the advertising might be the most notorious one, but I also use two services which allow me to see how many visitors I get a day, and which countries they come from. Some of these services may leave you a cookie too, if not all.
Personally, I have found that I do not agree with the way both Yahoo! and Google use the information I give them, so I am opting to use those services as less as possible (until finding a way to cancel them without losing all the data I have asked them to store). By means of example, Yahoo!'s terms of service for Peru read: "...By using the Services, you accept to allow Yahoo!, to its entire discretion, to identify words, links, people, and e-mail subjects and other messages which are archived (including instant messages and SMSs), and to analyse and categorise this information, without limitations, for its present and future use..."; while Google has been, by default, storing all the searches I have been doing from my account to offer them to me as my "search history page". I deactivated it already, but I still wonder how many different people already saw what I was storing.
Scary, isn't it?
Computers and the Internet + Online