Debunking the Superstition of Web Site Cookies by Understanding What They Are For

There is so much writen junk in the form of scare tactics aimed at the paranoid about the subject of Cookies.I have heard some of the most ridiculous myths from conspiracy theorists about the government getting information from Internet users by reading their cookies.While that scenario is more probable today than ever, it is not currently a reality� at least not with cookies.

In most cases, the cookie does not carry much personal information about you, other than an IP number and some browsing preferences.One of the things that consumers HATE about cookies is that information entered on a web site where they have made purchases can (and often does) go into a database, where it is matched to the cookie which tells them what pages they have viewed.Often times, this information is sold to other companies who sell similar products. People hate spam, junk mail, and sometimes, even salespeople.All of this adds up to a general and often misinformed opinion or distrust for cookies.

Know who you are buying from. Check out the company thoroughly. The spam masters don’t make privacy statements. Look for privacy policies on the web site so that you know that your information will not be sold to other companies.

So what is the magic that occurs when your browser talks to a server issuing cookies? Try not to fall asleep, this is exciting stuff.

1. You connect to the web site.

2. The web server identifies itself and asks your browser if it has ever accepted a cookie before.

a.) If the browser says no, you are given a cookie, and the data is written to your cookies file.

b.) If the browser says yes, too bad: sometimes you will still get another cookie, but it will likely have the same numerical identifier. If you don’t have a cookie from that site, you will have a numerical value assigned to a cookie which will be passed on to your browser.

Wasn’t that exhilarating? If you think that was fun, brace yourself.

A cookie CAN (but doesn’t have to have) an expiration date. That means that if you come back to the site after the expiration date, the marketing genius (ahem) that is tracking you doesn’t want you considered as a returning user if you haven’t returned to his site since WWII.

Cookie information is usually used by web servers administrators to determine the following data:

To isolate UNIQUE users.

To calculate how many users are NEW versus RETURNING visitors.

To determine how often UNIQUE visitors return to the site.

So what happens when you accept a cookie on some ones site? Well, you are assigned a unique numerical value. Every time you come back to the site that issued the cookie, the server will ask your browser if it has already issued you a cookie.If you still have your cookie from the last time you visited, then you don’t usually get another one.This way, statistical software can identify you as a UNIQUE user.

A hit from a user without cookies would look like this:

webserver.name.com – – [12/Jan/1996:20:37:55 +0000] “GET /index.htm HTTP/1.0” 200 215

Now, if this user had been from one of those big companies that use proxy servers that switch their IP’s on the fly, you can begin to see the problem. How could you track a unique user of their IP adderess is changing each time they visit?

Because some IP’s are dynamically assigned to users, the only way a web server can can know if you are the same person that was here yesterday is if it sees a cookie.

A hit from a user with cookies would look like this:

webserver.name.com – – [12/Jan/1996:20:37:55 +0000] “GET /index.html HTTP/1.1” 200 215 “cookie_id=4544715170”

Most web sites will store only a user ID in your browser’s cookie file. Please keeps this in mind if you are a paranoid type: a web site can only retrieve data from your cookie file that it has placed there. It cannot read any other cookie placed there by other sites.

Here is a couple scenarios that illustrates some nifty examples of cookies technology:

Suppose I make a web site that is dedicated to the stock market. On the front page, you are prompted to put in the stock symbols that interest you. Say you choose three symbols, surf a little and leave. You come back a week later, and just like magic, you are served up a web page that shows the ticker for the three symbols you chose a week ago. The cookie my web server gave your browser remembered the data you were interested in so that it knew to serve it to you again when you came back. Pretty nifty, eh? And remember, the data is encrypted so that no one else can make any sense of the cookie data.

The next scenario effects eCommerce sites. Ever shop on the Internet? You find that pair of battery operated heated gym socks you have always wanted and you select one pair, but you decide that you will continue shopping for the groovy Monkeys album your mom likes so much, and behold, there it is! You select it, and you are told it is in your shopping cart. All of the sudden, the hair stands up on the back of your neck like a something great is about to happen when suddenly you find those red plastic chili lights that are so “in” these days. Now, you figure you should stop before your significant other takes your credit cards away and you click the “checkout” button. Now you are seeing every item you selected neatly displayed before you. This is possible only because the product numbers for the items you requested were attached to the cookie so that it could “remember” your items for you.

Remember: Do not fear the cookie. The cookie is your friend.

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