What are Browser Cookies and How do They Work?

What are Browser Cookies and How do They Work?

If you have ever surfed the web, you have almost certainly encountered browser cookies among your digital travels. Although for some they may be a nuisance, for the majority browser cookies are an essential part of the internet experience, often interacting with you without your knowledge.

In this blog, I will take you through a 101 primer on browser cookies. For a more in-depth look at how they may affect the security of your IT environment, I invite you to read Jeff Warren’s blog on that very topic!

What is a Browser Cookie?

Browser cookie defninition

A browser cookie (sometimes referred to as an HTTP cookie) is a tiny snippet of data or code that is stored on a web browser when a user visits a website. This data contains a wide array of important information about the visitor. This makes it a vital tool for user experience, marketing, and, in the future, generating conversions when a user returns to the site and that information is recalled.

How Does a Browser Cookie Work?

When a user visits a website or takes certain actions on a website, a piece of data is transferred from the site and stored within the web browser that the person is utilizing. As someone browses the web, going from site to site, they sometimes pick up many cookies from multiple websites. When they return to a previously accessed website, it can read the cookie and recall information about them, such as previous activities, information and in some cases, where they have traveled through the web.

Example of Browser Cookies

There are many examples of browser cookies being used multiple times in your everyday life (and for different things without you even knowing!). Below are just a few of them you are likely to encounter on a day-to-day basis:

  • Website Authentication: When you visit a website login page, a web server will send a cookie that has a unique session identifier. Once a successful login occurs, the server will remember your unique session identifier and grant you access to the service. Cookies also help sites remember your login info from previous sessions. You have probably noticed that most times when you visit a website you have previously logged into, your username is already populated. This is an example of a browser cookie filling in that tidbit of information.
  • Shopping Carts: Have you ever added items to your shopping cart on an eCommerce site, navigated away from the site, came back the next day and your items were still in the cart? How did it know? This is because a cookie allowed to site to recall your shopping cart and place all of the items back in again.
  • Advertising/Remarketing: You once viewed a pair of shoes online or clicked an ad, and now you see that pair of shoes everywhere. Some people compare this experience to being followed by a digital stalker. In the advertising world, this is called remarketing and it is a surprisingly effective way to get people to convert on items they had previously abandoned. This works by google or some other marketing service cookie-ing your browser after you viewed an item. Google knows that you had an interest in it, and can distribute ads for it across its huge advertising platform consisting of millions of sites. The concept is the more often you see the item, the more inclined you will be to eventually purchase it!
  • Personalization: Cookies can be used on websites to help them learn what your interests are. This can help them tailor specific content to your liking. Maybe you bought an eBook or a new shirt on an online store somewhere – cookies can allow the website to suggest a different book by the same author, or a pair of pants that would fit your wardrobe perfectly based on your prior purchase.

Are Browser Cookies Safe?

In general, yes, browser cookies are safe. One of the great things about cookies is that they cannot infect your computer with things like viruses, malware, or ransomware. When they are working the way that they should, you should notice no difference in the performance of your machine.

However, there are certain ways that cookies can compromise your machine when a nefarious actor is involved. For more information on this topic, read Jeff Warren’s blog on the subject.

Disadvantages of Cookies

Although the advantages of using browser cookies often outweigh the negatives of them, there are some drawbacks. A few are listed below.

  • Privacy Concerns: With regulations like EU GDPR and CCPA becoming more prevalent, privacy issues around cookies have been called to the forefront, especially when it comes to advertising.
  • Multiple Computer/Account Users: Often times in households, multiple users may be utilizing the same family computer or accounts. Cookies have no way to differentiate between separate people in this manner, so person A may be severed content tailored to person B.
  • Security Concerns: As stated earlier, there are some concerns when it comes to the security of cookies. A targeted attack could potentially put your machine at risk.

How Can I Prevent Browser Cookies?

Sick of targeted advertising? Don’t want a website to remember your info? There are a few very minor things you can do to prevent cookies.

  • Browse in “Incognito Mode”: If you are using a browser like Google Chrome, you can browse the web in Incognito Mode. This type of browsing will prevent all search history and cookies from sticking to your computer. But be warned! It probably won’t prevent your employer from seeing your web history
  • Use a Proxy Server: Many people use a proxy server to keep their identities anonymous and prevent being tagged with cookies. There are many free options as well as paid alternatives out there.
  • Use an Add-on: Add-ons are available in the Google Chrome store designed to stop cookies.

How to Delete Browser Cookies

If you are using Google Chrome, clearing your cookies is a breeze! Just follow the steps below:

Step 1: On the top right of the browser, click the Chrome menu icon and select “Settings”

Settings

Step 2: On the left-hand side, choose “Privacy and Security”

Privacy and Security

Step 3: Under “Privacy and Security” click “Clear browsing data”

Clear browsing data

Step 4: Check off “Cookies and other site data” and click “Clear data”

Browser cookies and other site data

And that’s it! You have now just cleared all of your cookies for your browser.

How to Disable Browser Cookies

If you decide that you want to disable cookies on your Chrome browser, follow these steps below:

Step 1: On the top right of the browser, click the Chrome menu icon and select “Settings”

Settings

Step 2: On the left-hand side, choose “Privacy and Security”

Privacy and Security

Step 3: Under “Privacy and security” click “Site Settings”

Site Settings

Step 4: Under “Site Settings” click “Cookies and site data”

Browser cookies and site data

Step 5: Under “Cookies and site data” uncheck “Allow sites to save and read cookie data (recommended)”

Allow sites to save and read browser cookie data (recommended)

You can also check the option below “Clear cookies and site data when you quit Chrome” as well if you want your cookies erased every time you close the browser. For instances where multiple people may be using one machine, this might be the better option.

How Do I Enable Browser Cookies?

In almost all cases, web browsers by default will have browser cookies enabled. But, if you would like the check, or turn them back on again in Chrome after previously disabling them, simply follow the steps to disable, but instead re-check “Allow sites to save and read cookie data (recommended)” as your end step.

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