Mmmmm!  Cookies.

Think about Grandma’s cookies and that yummy feeling settles in but that other cookie can strike fear in many computer users.  We know our computers have them but what’s a cookie to a computer anyway and why do we have them?  What do they do?  Do they harm computers?  Give away our most private data?  Do we even want these cookies?

The reality is Grandma’s cookies will always be tastier than a computer cookie but a computer cookie probably won’t hurt any more than Grandma’s cookies will.  They’re small, they’re harmless, and they actually do us some good.  And just like a plate of the yummy stuff, you can decline the offer of a computer cookie every time one comes your way.

Computer cookies are merely bits of text code that speed things up.  They’re especially helpful for favorite or bookmarked websites, the ones we choose to visit again and again.  When a website is visited, a tiny bit of programming code is transferred from the website to your computer’s hard drive.  The data stored in this tiny program helps the window open faster because some of its most important coding is already stored on your computer where it’s ready and available for quick use.  Nothing more needs to be downloaded from cyberspace, wherever that is.

Let’s go on an imaginary internet shopping spree to illustrate the point.  Think of your favorite internet store. Let’s say the last time you were there, you bought a pair of shoes (blue, size 7), a dress to match (also blue, size 10), and three cases of bottled water.  You paid for the purchase with a credit card and probably had to establish an account with the merchant before the sale was complete.  You surely had the goods shipped to you at home or somewhere.

The next time you go to that store’s website again, the website will have data available that will speed up and streamline the purchasing process this time.  That’s because cookies were installed on your hard drive during the first visit so more shopping could be done but without a lot of repetition.

The second time at the web store, you probably saw a photo of the blue shoes you bought last time.  If you search for other shoes, you’re likely to get a return of all shoes available in size 7.  That’s because the cookie on your computer reminded the store of what size you bought last time.  You’ll find a similar situation with the dress and, when you buy just one case of water this time, you probably won’t have to specify brand name but you may need to change the quantity to just one case this time.

Before completing the purchase, you’ll probably be asked to sign in to your account.  It’s likely you’ll find your name, user ID, and password ready in a dialog box on the screen, just waiting for your click to proceed.  Without cookies, you’d have to enter all this data each and every time.

Your credit card data will have also been stored in a cookie so you don’t have to risk entering a wrong number or sending private financial data back across the internet.

Shipping address?  A cookie would have been installed during the first order so you won’t have to re-enter that data again, unless you’re shipping to a different address.  The original shipping address will appear on the order automatically, thanks to a cookie.  The new shipping address will get its own cookie so you may need to choose from both addresses when you come shopping next time.

Cookies are bits of data that allow information to be stored conveniently and accessed quickly; they are not programs that change anything at all about your personal computer.  Cookies serve no purpose to anyone other than the merchant and the computer user so they are not a target of hacking, phishing, or any other type of foul play.  They cannot even be accessed by outside parties.

Still leery?  Look to the menu bar of your browser.  Each browser will have cookie preferences available to you in a different location but start with the drop-down menus marked ‘options,’ ‘edit,’ or ‘view.’ Follow links in each dialog box until you can view the cookies you’ve accumulated.  Once on this page of official cookie specs, it’s easy to delete any or all of them.  Of course, you’ll have to manually enter personal data next time you visit a website whose cookies you’ve deleted.

You can even set your preferences to ask you each time a cookie wants to be installed (this is a slow process) or you can automatically reject them all (in which case you can just forget about the internet because you’ll get nowhere without cookies on the web today.)

Cookies are a good thing.  They’re small, useful, they speed things up, and save time by eliminating a good bit of frustrating repetition.  They make your personal identity safer, too, since you won’t need to enter personal data, including financial data, every time you open a new web page that calls for it.

The worst thing about a computer cookie?  It will never taste as comfortably delicious as the ones Grandma makes.

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