No, this article isn't about some new, lose-20-pounds-in-a-week, certified-by-some-tan-Southern-California-doctor diet. It's about cookies on your computer - what they are, why they are there, and what to do about them. Computer cookies actually have quite a bit in common with their baked counterparts - some are good, some are bad, and they have expiration dates.
Cookies are small text files that a server places onto your hard drive whenever you access a given domain. Cookies typically contain information that the website uses to either customize the page you are viewing or otherwise make your web browsing experience more convenient and enjoyable. The information is stored on your hard drive and accessed whenever you go back to the website that originally gave you the cookie. They usually include an expiration date at which point they will be erased from your computer - it could be when you close your browser; or hours, days, months, or years after it is placed. Some don't expire at all. At the time of this writing I had a cookie stored on my computer that wasn't set to expire until Wednesday, February 25th, 2195 at 3:45:13 am - I deleted it.
Before you run out to your browser's options and delete and block all cookies, let me mention a few common uses of cookies:
* Cookies store information for 'shopping carts' at online stores. When you select an item and place it in the shopping cart, a cookie is created to remember the item and the price so that you can keep shopping. When you are done shopping you simply click the button to check out and the site accesses the information stored in the cookies to complete your order.
* Cookies can be used to remember logins and passwords. While this initially sounds a little disheartening, the purpose is really to save you time. Sites will remember the information for you so you don't have to type it in each time you want to access information.
* Cookies help websites customize their content and layout for you. If you are a diehard fan of the local college's basketball team, and you always access the stats and score from the game at a website, that site might use a cookie to send you straight to your team's page.
* Cookies help identify whether you have already visited a site. They can also count how many times you have visited the site in a given period of time.
* Cookies remember the last page or position you were on at the site. Like a virtual bookmark, this is especially helpful if you are reading online or accessing several pages of information.
There are many other ways cookies can be used, and there is obvious potential for abuse. You probably wouldn't eat a cookie given to you by a complete stranger, especially if you didn't know what was in it. The same common-sense principle holds true while you're online, and exercising a little caution can save you from a lot of heartache later on. Blocking any and all cookies will guarantee no personal information is leaked through the cookies, but many sites will either not be able to or will choose not to interact with you.
The trick, then, is to let the good cookies through while screening out the bad ones, not at all dissimilar to what you do when you hover over the cookie tray at a party - you take the ones you want and leave the rest behind. This can be accomplished in a few different ways.
First, you can periodically delete all the cookies on your hard drive. This will systematically wipe out all unwanted cookies that have made their way to your computer. Unfortunately, it will also take care of all the good cookies too. If you only use the internet occasionally (i.e. a few minutes a week), this option might work for you.
Second, you can try to go about it manually. Many browsers that allow you to block cookies also include a feature that allows you to include a list of sites from which you will allow cookies. The advantage of this method is it places virtually complete control over cookies into your hands, allowing only those that you want to be placed on your hard drive. The disadvantage is that it can become very burdensome (at times downright annoying) having to constantly update the list of allowed sites.
Third, you can call in some third-party software to help out. The best programs will scan your computer to find all the cookies and put them into a table or list. This saves you the trouble of having to dig around your hard drive to find the files yourself (try looking for a folder named "Cookies"). Many programs will also indicate with some degree of confidence whether a given cookie is wanted or unwanted, and provide a convenient way to delete the ones that you decide you don't want.