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The Computer Corner

COMPUTERS

By Charles Miller

Cookies Inherently Sneaky But Not All-Powerful

Cookies are among the most misunderstood aspects of computer technology. Depending on who you listen to, cookies may have been explained as evil and intrusive spying mechanisms tracking your every move on the net (actually, that is the NSA) or cookies may have been described as a harmless way to make your Internet experience easier. I hope this week’s column will help to clear up any confusion and possibly ease concerns.

The reason so many people are wondering lately about cookies is because new messages keep popping up while surfing the web. Websites often display “We use cookies for analytics, performance, security, advertising, and social media. You consent to our cookies if you continue to use our website.” That message is there to now comply with European Union regulations and the legal requirements of other jurisdictions. Most websites are using cookies today the same way they have been for a decade; the only change is that the legal disclaimer is now required.

So what is a cookie? It is a small text-only file containing information used by the website you visited. That includes the site name and unique user ID and possibly other information such as how long you spent on each page on the site, what links you clicked on, language preferences, lists of what is in your “shopping cart,” and more. It is important to note that everything just mentioned is information you voluntarily put there either by letting your web browser do it for you or by you typing in your information while on the website. There is simply no way a cookie can contain any of your personal information such as name, address, passwords, or credit card numbers unless you were the one who typed it in.

So why is there so much paranoia about cookies? The answer has to do with the fact that using cookies is inherently sneaky. Internet users simply do not understand that their own computers are being used to store information which can then be used to build a picture of their browsing habits.

Third-party cookies are cookies that are created on your computer by a website other than the one you are currently viewing. For example, you might not be a Facebook user, never visit facebook.com, and not want anything to do with Facebook, but there is a Facebook button on other websites you do want to visit. That Facebook button on your favorite website can allow Facebook to set a cookie to track your every move, even if you never go anywhere near facebook.com. And Facebook is far from the only company attempting to track your online activities and sell that information to advertisers.

Your web browser has some control over what cookies are allowed into your computer. You may disable the third-party cookies while permitting cookies to others. It is also possible to completely disable cookies, but then be prepared to receive the “This website requires you to permit cookies” message every time you try to visit a website.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.

 

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