Cookies were introduced to Internet browsing by the pioneering firm Netscape.The
name "cookie" was a term already in use in computer science for
describing a piece of data held by an intermediary.
are small pieces of information in text format that are downloaded
to your computer when you visit many Web sites. The cookie may come
from the Web site itself or from the providers of the advertising banners
or other graphics that make up a Web page. Thus visiting a single Web
site can actually result in the downloading of multiple cookies, each
from a different source. You may never actually visit a page of one
of the major advertising agencies like Doubleclick.com but you will
still get cookies from them. Cookies typically contain some kind of
ID number, a domain that the
cookie is valid for, and an expiration date. They may also contain
other tracking information such as login names and pages visited. Since
they are in text format, they can be read with a regular text editor
such as Notepad although the contents may not necessarily seem to make
a lot of sense.
There are a number of cookie viewers available,
which will also give some information about the meaning of the content.
A good freeware program is Karen’s
Cookie Viewer by
the well-known programmer, Karen Kenworthy. Other software is listed in the sidebar.
These programs can also be used to delete selected cookies.
Where are Cookies Kept?
Each type of Internet browser designates a particular place for storing
Internet Explorer (IE) has a folder Cookies\ where
cookies are kept as small individual text files, one for each cookie.
In Windows 98/Me, the IE cookie folder is a sub-folder of the Windows
folder. Windows XP has different folders, one for each user, \Documents
and Settings\[User name]\Cookies\. As
part of a complex caching scheme, pointers to IE cookies are also
kept in the folder Temporary Internet Files\.
uses Internet Explorer underneath its proprietary interface, it employs
the same method as IE and cookies are in the same place.
Netscape and Mozilla related browsers use a single text file, cookies.txt, with
each cookie occupying one or more lines within this one file. The
location of the file depends on your version and
type of browser.
The easiest way to find where cookies are kept is to do a Find or Search
either on the folder name "Cookies" or the file name "cookies.txt",
depending on your browser.
What are Cookies for?
They are necessary to provide the function of “persistence”.
Browsing the Internet involves what is known as a “stateless” process.
In other words, a Web site ordinarily has no memory of who comes
and goes. (Actually, logs of traffic are kept but these
are not involved here.) As soon as the information that your browser
requests from a site is downloaded to your computer, the connection
is dropped. If you return to the site a minute later (or whenever),
the site has no knowledge that you were just there. If a site has
several pages and you go from one to the other the site does not
remember which pages you have been to. That is, it won’t
unless a cookie is on your machine to remind the site and provide
continuity. The Unofficial
Cookie FAQ gives the following
More details of how cookies work and what they do are given in the references
in the sidebar.
Cookies and Privacy
Although some cookies provide a useful function, many others may not be
desirable. As the Internet has evolved from its beginnings in academia
and government to a commercial enterprise, cookies have inevitably
been turned into a tracking mechanism used by advertisers. In principle,
cookies are only accessible to the site that originated them but
large advertising agencies with many clients can easily circumvent
this restriction by collecting information for all their clients
under one domain. A fairly harmless (and perhaps even useful) advertising
application of cookies is to rotate banner ads as you go from page
to page to make sure that you do not see the same ads over and
over. However, there are more invasive tracking methods that might
involve cookies and therein arise privacy issues. The privacy problem
is beyond the scope of this article but some references are given
in the sidebar.
It should be emphasized that cookies are plain text files and, as such,
are not executable programs and cannot do anything to your computer.
Many PC users do nothing to manage cookies and simply accept whatever comes
their way. This policy of neglect had more to recommend it back
when cookie management was fairly arduous and time-consuming.
Today, however, the obstacles to cookie management are low enough
that at least some form of basic management should be a standard
There are several reasons why a PC user might consider exerting a little
effort in this area. First, the volume of cookies sent out these
days is so large that a computer will rapidly acquire hundreds
of cookies. It isn't unusual for me to pick up 30 or 40 in a single
hour of browsing. Some of these cookies are useful but most are
tracking cookies from advertisers. Simply from disk housekeeping
considerations, you might want to keep the number down. A more
serious consideration for many is the possible privacy issues that
arise from the tracking cookies. Controlling cookies isn't that
difficult and here are some methods.
In theory you can simply refuse all cookies. All standard browsers allow
for this option. However, this is not a very
purposes. Also many sites require cookies to be enabled before
they let you view them.
A better alternative is to selectively block and/or remove
undesirable cookies while keeping good ones. There are a number
One way is by do-it-yourself methods involving such things as editing
the actual contents of the IE cookie folder. This is tedious
and there are better ways.
The major browsers have added
ways of selectively configuring for cookies. For example, Internet
Explorer 6 has Privacy settings with a number of cookie
options. Among the options is the ability to list specific sites
whose cookies are to be rejected. This gives a PC user the option
of refusing cookies from certain advertising agencies such as DoubleClick
that use aggressive tracking methods. Details for IE are in this
tutorial. The Firefox browser has even more cookie control in its setting
Tools-Options-Privacy (more details
on this page.)
There is a whole assortment of Internet security software, some free,
some commercial, that include cookie management. Two free programs are this script and Karen Kenworthy’s
Cookie Viewer. The major commercial players
like Symantec and McAfee now include cookie management in their
Internet security suites as do firewall applications like ZoneAlarm
Pro. Tracking cookies are specifically targeted by many spyware
removal programs. There are also programs
such as Cookie Crusher designed to deal specifically with cookies.
See the sidebar for references for various programs.
More details of cookie management for Internet Explorer 6 are given on the next
Cookie management in Firefox is discussed on this page.
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