articles by Brian Pitre
Cookies, it seems, are okay
Not too long ago, people
thought it was unsafe to make credit card
transactions over the Internet. Fortunately, people have come to
understand that it is safer to use credit cards on the Web than it is to
give them to a waiter or waitress in a restaurant.
The newest Internet
misunderstanding results from rumors about a
simple technology in Web browsers known as cookies. An increasing
number of people have asked me about cookies, and their main
concern is whether cookies are bad. Some of the interesting
questions I have been asked about cookies include:
"Can they tell who I am
when I visit a Website?"
"Can they capture my email address without my knowledge
and is that where spam comes from?"
"Can cookies allow others to look inside my computer and find
something that resembles a Social Security number or a bank
"Will cookies damage my computer?"
"Do cookies spread viruses?"
"Are cookies the work of hackers?"
The simple answer to all of
these is no Ė cookies are good!
"Magic Cookies," as
Netscape originally dubbed them, are tokens that
are exchanged on the end user computer to personalize data to the
visitor. When you visit a Website, your Netscape or Microsoft Explorer
browser reads and writes to a small text file on your computerís hard
drive named Cookies.txt. Only the issuer of the cookies can read
these text files, so they are not shared, no program can be executed,
and they cannot damage your machine. Cookies can only contain the
information you disclose on the site. If you donít disclose information,
they cannot retrieve it.
Cookies are good because they
make it easier to browse the Internet.
They reduce redundant tasks, replace passwords, customize
information, and enable visitors to personalize a Website to their
individual preferences. Although information is exchanged between
your computer and a server without your knowledge, it ultimately
Let me provide you with some
examples. If you have registered on a
site, for instance, cookies can greet you personally upon a return visit
such as "Welcome back Brian Pitre." This can only occur, however,
after you have told them who you are by registering on that specific
site. The New York Times site is another great example. After you
register, they make it possible to visit the site without a password Ė
cookies do it automatically.
Other uses of cookies can
only occur during a single client server
session. These examples include using cookies as a place to store
information contained in a shopping cart system for Online ordering
over the Internet, or insuring that rotating banner ads on a site display
different ads during the course of your visit.
Imagine the difficulty of
keeping preferences for every browser that has
ever visited Yahoo! It would be impossible to keep all the preferences
on the Web server since the data would amount to billions of bytes. It is
more effective for each userís browser to keep their own preferences
in the cookies.txt file.
The US government quietly
issued an upbeat advisory praising Internet
cookies last March. The bulletin, which came from the energy
departmentís Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC),
concluded that the hype about cookies has far outweighed the actual
hazards of the technology.
Cookie technology need not be
feared or condemned. Cookies
benefit the visitor by enhancing their experience on Websites that use
them. As with almost any technology, people can use it properly or
abuse it. The value cookies provide outweigh the threat that one might
hear about freedom and privacy in cyberspace. Cookies, it seems,