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Cookies: What Are They and Why Do I Need Them?

The biggest problem people seem to have when surfing the web is having their cookie settings adjusted correctly.  They may visit a website that doesn't seem to function properly, or they may have trouble logging onto websites that require a password.

The problem can usually be traced to having cookies turned OFF.  So what are cookies?

Cookies are small bits of information that get written and stored on your hard drive.  They can serve a wide variety of uses.  Websites may use them to track how users are navigating pages... Or a page might display differently depending on whether it's a first time visit or not... Or your username and password might be stored so you don't need to log in everytime you go to a site.

Cookies have gotten a bit of a bad rap.  Some companies use cookies to target particular banner advertising to particular users based on the other pages they have visited.  This alarmed many people who were concerend that there might be marketing companies who could track exactly who was using the web and how.  Privacy concerns for many people have trumped Internet usability.  As a result, many people chose to completely disable cookie support on their computers.

However, what has been lost in all of this is the fact that there are really TWO KINDS OF COOKIES.  There is the regular cookie, known as an HTTP cookie, that gets written to the users hard drive (and the one that scares many Internet users) and there are SESSION COOKIES.  So what's different about a session cookie?  Well for starters, a session cookie DOES NOT get written to the hard drive.  Instead, it lives in your computers memory.  Second of all, it has a very short shelf life.  Once you leave a website, a session cookie remains in memory for only a very short while (usually between ten or twenty minutes) and once it's gone it's gone forever.  If you go back to that website, it will create a new session cookie.  Turn your computer off, or reboot, and all session cookies disappear!  Virtually all secure websites are dependent on the functionality of session cookies.

A good example of this is PayPal.  Once you log into PayPal, as long as you keep doing stuff within the PayPal website you will remain logged in.  If you step out for an hour to grab lunch, then try and do something in PayPal, you will need to sign back in.  This is becasue your session cookie has expired.

So What Should You Do?

My personal opinion?  Turn cookies ON.  While privacy concerns are valid, I think the worries are way overblown.  At the very least, I can see NO HARM WHATSOEVER in enabling session cookies.  Their short shelf life combined with their storage in memory means they won't be around long enough to be read by another website.  Plus, by disabling the session cookie, you are dooming yourself to an Internet world that is only partially functional.

So How Do You Stack Up?

Hope you don't mind, but I took the liberty of taking a look at your cookies that were set by this site.  Here's what I found:




HTTP (stored) Cookie

Session Cookie

Special note: the HTTP cookie was actually set when you visited the home page.  If you are seeing that your HTTP cookie is disabled, take a second and jump back to the home page, then revisit this page.  If it still indicates that it's disabled, then you have cookies TURNED OFF.



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