Not the Yummy Chocolate Chip Kind – I know what they’re good for. I’m talking about the cookies that store bits of Information on your computer. Let’s first get a good idea of what a cookie actually is and does. We hear the term all the time but do you really know what it’s doing on your PC?
According to Webopedia, a cookie is a message given to a Web browser by a Web server. The browser stores the message in a text file. The message is then sent back to the server each time the browser requests a page from the server. The name cookie derives from UNIX (a type of computer operating system) objects called magic cookies. These are tokens that are attached to a user or program and change depending on the areas entered by the user or program.
For the most part we go about our business on the Web and don’t think about the cookies that are being stored on our computer as we fill out forms and interact with websites. But they ARE being stored and there are LOTS of them. Is this a bad thing? No. Cookies save us time and make the web more fun and interesting. You give a website your name and then go back to that site and across the top you see a Hello message with your name, then you know you are in the right place and the right account. A cookie has stored your name so it can be displayed each time you login on that website.
Cookies are safe in that they can’t store viruses and they don’t act maliciously. They are simple, very small text files. However they do store any information you type into any web form on any website, unless you have cookies turned off on your computer. That means they store your credit card information if you have used it on the web. Cookies are stored about 6 folders deep on your hard drive and unless you are using a shared computer with shared login with a very untrustworthy person, you don’t have much to worry about. The probability of your credit card information being stolen through an unsecured Internet connection should be of higher concern to you.
So what got me thinking about all this cookie stuff? No, it wasn’t the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies coming from my oven. I can’t remember the last time I baked cookies! It was a problem I was having with LinkedIn that got me investigating. For weeks I was able to log into my LinkedIn account in my Chrome browser but every time I tried in Firefox I was told my email or password were incorrect. How could this be? I was using the exact same info in both browsers. I finally got tired of ignoring the problem and it occurred to me that possibly some old information was ‘stuck’ in some memory somewhere on my computer.
So I decided to take a peek at the cookies stored in Firefox to see if that would shed some light on the situation. To check cookies out yourself, go to (in Firefox – each browser & operating system is slightly different) the Tools Menu –> Options. The Options window will open. Go to the Privacy tab.
Choose ‘remove individual cookies’. I didn’t want to remove all cookies because they come in handy on most sites. So I searched through the list until I found linkedin.com.
I highlighted the linkedin.com cookie folder, clicked on the Remove Cookie button, opened LinkedIn in Firefox, entered my email and password, and it worked perfectly. My hunch was correct! For some reason, the old cookie must have been stuck when it should have been replaced by the new one. No matter how many times I tried the new password, Firefox would have continued to tell me it was wrong.
It’s a bit tricky finding all these settings in the various browsers on the various operating systems so I recommend you poke around until you find what you are looking for. You won’t hurt anything and you’ll most likely learn something in the process. It’s usually under Tools –> Options –> Privacy. In some cases you may have to delete all cookies. If so, that’s ok too. It’s not a bad idea to delete all your history, saved passwords, and cookies now and then. Just be aware that you will be typing more for a while until your browser has stored all these files again.
One last point I should make. If you have your browser set to never save passwords, you would not have had the problem I had. Some people set their laptops and tablets that way as they are more likely to be lost or stolen than a desktop PC. And if lost or stolen, it would be easier for a stranger to get into their accounts if the login information pops right in there for them.
I hope this helps you understand what cookies are doing on your computer and how they can help you and/or annoy you. Please let me know if this was helpful or if I can answer any related questions for you.