What’s All the Fuss About Internet Cookies?

    January 13, 2004

As if keeping your computer operating properly wasn’t enough, advertisers on the Internet like to utilize it to do their bidding, too. They love it when your computer is fast, powerful, and responsive! They’ll use as much of your computer and your Internet connection, which you unknowingly allow, hawking their wares and even attempting to scare you into purchasing their products.

They may even be so bold as to advertise a product that gives you control over how to stop all advertisements! To make matters worse, they can typically make a perfectly functional computer very frustrating to use. Of course, once they’ve “warned” you about all the “dangers” of not having their product, it leaves you confused about whether what they said is true or not. Who do you believe? With all the recent talk of Internet cookies, temporary Internet files, and pop-ups, you must need to buy something to protect yourself, right? WRONG! This couldn’t be further from the truth. Put away your wallet, because you’re about to learn how to end all of this nonsense and take back control of your own computer.

Internet Cookies

Cookies have received a lot of bad publicity and, as a result, many people want to know how to remove them from their computer. First, you need to understand that having Internet cookies on your computer is not necessarily a bad thing.

An Internet cookie is typically used to remember specific information about the last time you visited a particular web site. For example, when you visit a web site where you shop, it may place items you have selected to purchase into a virtual shopping cart. If you exit the web site without purchasing any of the items you placed in the shopping cart, it will remember the contents of your shopping cart the next time you visit.

Thanks to Internet cookies, you can specify your personal preferences of features that a web site may offer, such as to display the current weather conditions of the city you live in or to automatically enter your user name and password if one is required for that particular web site. Then, each time you visit that web site in the future, it automatically recalls your preferences. These types of cookies are called first-party cookies.

There are also session cookies, which are temporary cookies that exist only while you are currently visiting a web site. Once you leave that web site, the cookie is removed.

How Do Internet Cookies Work?

When a web site remembers your preferences, it does so by saving that information on the web site’s computer, and then assigns that information a unique identification tag. The web site places only the identification tag information on your computer, using a very small text file with a unique name. The next time you visit that web site, it checks to see if you have this text file on your computer, and if so, what identification tag it contains.

A common misconception is that an Internet cookie is a program that web sites place on your computer to collect data at will about your computer usage. An Internet cookie is not a program, and it cannot read any data from your hard disk, including the data stored in other cookies. Also, no other computer can read the cookie except the one that gave it to you. The only information a cookie will ever contain is information you specifically provided.

Simply put, an Internet cookie is a unique tag that is placed on your computer that essentially says, “You were here.” It’s a simple way you can identify yourself to web sites you visit. Any information associated with your identity is kept on the web site’s computer.

So What’s All the Fuss About?

There are several clever, unscrupulous marketing companies that add cookies to their Internet advertisements. If you visit a web site that contains one of these advertisements, the advertisement places a cookie on your computer. These are referred to as third-party cookies.

Once you have a third-party cookie stored and happen to visit another site that uses the same marketing company, it will recognize the third-party cookie on your computer and be able to determine not only what page you were visiting when it recognized you, but also your computer’s IP (Internet Protocol) address. The marketing companies won’t know what you do with the pages you view, but from knowing what pages you visit and how often, they can target specific advertisements to appear on your screen that they think you will be interested in based on that information. This isn’t the same as collecting personal information such as your e-mail address or tracking your every move when you are online.

The act of being on the Internet is commonly referred to as being online. Saying, “I am currently on the Internet” or “I am currently online” is
the same thing.

Taming the Cookie Monster

As previously mentioned, Internet cookies aren’t all bad. Using a spyware detection and removal utility, such as those discussed in Chapter 2, will help eliminate the bad cookies while leaving the good cookies alone.

Blocking Third-Party Cookies

Since prevention is always the best medicine, you’ll learn how to configure your computer to accept only first-party and session cookies, and to deny all third-party cookies. Follow these steps to block only third-party cookies:

1. For Windows 98/Me, click Start, click Settings, and click Control Panel. For Windows XP, click Start and click Control Panel.

2. Double-click the icon labeled Internet Options.

3. Click the Privacy tab and click the button labeled Advanced.

4. Place a check in the box next to Override automatic cookie handling.

5. Select Allow under First-party Cookies.

6. Select Block under Third-party Cookies.

7. Place a check in the box next to Always allow session cookies. Your screen should now look like Figure 4-1.

8. Click OK, click OK, and close the Control Panel.[ANCHOR HERE: Figure 1]

Deleting Cookies

If you want to, you can delete all Internet cookies from your computer. However, keep in mind that since an Internet cookie enters your name and password automatically to specific web sites that require such information, you will be required to enter your name and password manually on future visits to these web sites after you’ve erased all Internet cookies from your computer.
To erase all Internet cookies from your computer, follow these steps:

1. For Windows 98/Me, click Start, click Settings, and click Control Panel. For Windows XP, click Start and click Control Panel.

2. Double-click the icon labeled Internet Options.

3. The General page opens. Click the Delete Cookies button, which is in the middle of the page, under Temporary Internet files, as shown in Figure 4-2.

4. You will be asked if you wish to proceed or cancel this request. Click OK to proceed if you are sure you want to permanently delete all Internet cookies (good and bad) from your computer.

5. When the process is complete, click OK, and then close the Control Panel.

Carey Holzman owns and operates Discount Computer Repair (602-527-9723) in Phoenix, Arizona, where he offers repairs, upgrades, custom built PCs and network wiring at highly competitive pricing. His networking tips have appeared in David Strom’s book, The Home Networking Survival Guide (McGraw/Hill), and his own book on PC maintenance is currently available at local book stores, amazon.com or directly through him. His free informative web site can be found at http://www.careyholzman.com. Donate $30 to help maintain his site and you’ll get a free autographed copy of his book. Carey can be reached directly at carey@careyholzman.com.