A web cookie is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored on the user's computer by the user's web browser while the user is browsing. This small text file helps the site to recognize your access.
Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items added in the shopping cart in an online store) or to record the user's browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited in the past). They can also be used to remember arbitrary pieces of information that the user previously entered into form fields such as names, addresses, passwords, and credit card numbers.
Because session cookies only contain a unique session identifier, this makes the amount of personal information that a website can save about each user virtually limitless—the website is not limited to restrictions concerning how large a cookie can be. Session cookies also help to improve page load times, since the amount of information in a session cookie is small and requires little bandwidth.
Cookies can be used to remember information about the user in order to show relevant content to that user over time. For example, a web server might send a cookie containing the username last used to log into a website so that it may be filled in automatically the next time the user logs in.
Tracking cookies are used to track users' web browsing habits. This can also be done to some extent by using the IP address of the computer requesting the page or the referer field of the HTTP request header, but cookies allow for greater precision. This can be demonstrated as follows:
By analyzing this log file, it is then possible to find out which pages the user has visited, in what sequence, and for how long.
Corporations exploit users' web habits by tracking cookies to collect information about buying habits. The Wall Street Journal found that America's top fifty websites installed an average of sixty-four pieces of tracking technology onto computers, resulting in a total of 3,180 tracking files. The data can then be collected and sold to bidding corporations.
Most modern browsers support cookies and allow the user to disable them. The following are common options:
By default, Internet Explorer allows third-party cookies only if they are accompanied by a P3P "CP" (Compact Policy) field.
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