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What Are Computer Cookies And How To Protect Yourself From Them

By: Anna Hinds BA (hons) - Updated: 19 Nov 2012 | comments*Discuss
Computer Cookies Computer Privacy Online

Crisp and buttery or sneaky and cunning? It may be named after the Chinese delicacy but this cookie is far from innocent. While you surf the web computer cookies are quietly gathering an array of personal data, from your favourite music to the batteries your MP3 player uses. What do you need to know about cookies on your computer?

What is a Computer Cookie?

A computer cookie is a tiny text file that is saved to your hard drive by a website programme. This file contains information about your searches and behaviour on the website. It is saved without your consent or knowledge meaning you really have no computer privacy. Whenever you next visit the site, it identifies you by looking-up your cookie. This is how many sites are able to 'greet' you when you return, to remember your password, or to recommend products just for you.

Computer cookies are programmed to collect certain information about you. For Google, your cookie file could contain search terms, a unique identification number, and your IP address. It's designed to monitor your movements and report back to the host website.

Cookies are not malicious, although they can be embedded by spyware and programmed to collect personal information. Provided you have protection against spy software, it is generally safe to allow your browser to collect cookies as you surf the web, although you might well be concerned about online privacy.

What Are Computer Cookies Used For?

As they gather and record your information, computer cookies are creating a valuable record of your behaviour and your statistics. Online companies use them to carry out behavioural targeting.

Behavioural targeting is a method which enables companies to identify trends and predict your actions. When you, like thousands of others, were searching for driving directions using Google, the search engine giant identified a common need and quickly established 'Google Maps'. If enough of us were to boycott 'Google Maps', clicking on another direction provider, Google would probably recognise this trend and relegate Google Maps to a minor page.

Customer behaviour can be used to identify gaps in the market but also to advertise effectively. Shopping websites will use cookies to trace your movements and improve their sales. If, for instance, you arrived on their site looking for a certain vacuum model, and then clicked through to the cheapest model on their site, they would use this information to display the right advertisement to you. It would probably tap in to your money-saving attitude: "Save money! Buy your vacuum bags in bulk now!". Personalised advertising has become very popular, and cookies are an important part of the process.

What Should I Do About Computer Cookies?

When cookies were first introduced, nobody knew they were there, and nobody was able to stop them - no one realised they threatened computer privacy. But this soon changed when people in-the-know started to kick up a fuss, and eventually cookie controls were added to most browser programmes.Because cookies gather so much personal information, and particularly because you don't always know what that includes, we recommend taking action to protect yourself against cookies for your computer privacy. There are a few ways to fool the system - the first action is essential for anyone using the web.

  • Delete cookies on a regular basis. Open 'Internet Options' or 'Delete History' in your internet browser and select the 'delete cookies' option. This removes the text files from your hard drive. Websites will create a new cookie for you next time you visit, but at least you can stop them from accumulating your personal information.

  • Turn off cookies on your internet browser. You can set up your browser to refuse to accept cookies from websites. This will prevent automatic sign-in and it can cause problems with logging in to some sites, but it's the best way to maintain complete privacy online. In Internet Explorer, do this by clicking Tools> Internet Options> Privacy> Advanced> Override default cookie handling> and select 'block' or 'prompt'.
  • Finally, if you are concerned about online privacy, choose to use sites that make privacy a priority.Use secure shopping sites that don't use computer cookies (just read their privacy policy before shopping); choose a search engine that does not use cookies; or use one of the 'surf anonymiser' websites available.

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This is a good website because of the detail. also it makes sense an stuff.
gabby - 19-Nov-12 @ 1:26 PM
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