When most people talk about cookies, the conversation is usually about sweet baked goods. But when IT professionals talk about cookies, they are discussing the Internet. In this context, the term cookies refers to small data files that contain strings of text. When you connect to a website, its web server sends a cookie to your web browser. The browser will send the cookie back to the server whenever you visit that website again.
Cookies are used throughout the Internet because they let websites communicate with their visitors in a more personal way. For example, suppose you buy shoes from an online retailer. The retailer's web server will assign an identification (ID) number to you. Besides storing this ID number in a database, the web server will send it to you in a cookie.
The next time you visit the online retailer's website, your web browser will send this cookie back to the retailer's web server. The web server will then personalize the page that it displays for you. In this case, it might showcase shoes that are similar to the pair you bought last time. This personalization means that online advertisers do not have to run the same ads over and over again. It also means you can save your preferences when visiting a particular website.
Cookies themselves are harmless. However, cybercriminals can use them to impersonate you online and thereby gain access to your accounts. By hiding code in stolen cookies, cybercriminals can also spread malware and manipulate you into visiting malicious websites.
How to Protect Yourself
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of using cookies, you can turn off this setting in your web browser. If you do not mind cookies being used, it is still a good idea to delete your browser's cookies every now and then. This makes it harder for companies to track your web activity.
In addition, before you enter private information on a website, you should make sure the link is secure. To do so, look for a padlock icon somewhere in the browser window frame. When you click the padlock icon, you should see details about the site's security, including information about cookies. You should also make sure the web address begins with "https". Websites beginning with "https" use encryption to secure web connections. For more advice about using the Internet safely, talk to your IT service provider.
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