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What Are HTTP Cookies: How Websites Track Your Online Activity

HTTP cookies, web cookies, or browser cookies are small text files saved on your computer or mobile device when you visit a website. They are created by the website's server and stored in your web browser's cache. Each cookie contains information about your activity on the website, such as your login credentials, browsing history, and preferences.

Carl Gamutan

by Carl Gamutan

April 7, 2023


What are HTTP Cookies?

HTTP cookies, web cookies, or browser cookies are small text files saved on your computer or mobile device when you visit a website. They are created by the website's server and stored in your web browser's cache. Each cookie contains information about your activity on the website, such as your login credentials, browsing history, and preferences.

When you revisit the website, the browser sends the cookie data back to the website's server, allowing the site to remember your activity and preferences. For example, if you add items to your shopping cart on an online store, the website uses cookies to remember your cart contents when you return to the site later.

HTTP cookies are essential for website functionality, but because they are used to track user behavior and personalize website content, it has led to concerns about online privacy and the collection of personal data by websites.

Why are HTTP Cookies called cookies?

HTTP cookies are called "cookies" because they were named after the small sweet biscuits, or "cookies," that people often eat with a cup of tea or coffee.

The idea of using the term "cookie" to describe web tracking data was first introduced by computer programmer Lou Montulli in 1994. He was developing Netscape Navigator, one of the first web browsers, and wanted to find a way to allow websites to remember user preferences and activity.

Montulli thought of the small packets of data that websites would send to users' browsers as similar to the small cookies his grandmother gave him as a child. The term caught on and became widely adopted across the internet.

Today, the term "cookie" is used to refer to any type of web tracking data stored on a user's computer or mobile device.

How do HTTP cookies work?

When you visit a website that uses cookies, its server sends a small piece of data to your web browser, saving it on your computer or mobile device. The next time you visit the website, the browser sends the stored cookie data back to the website's server.

HTTP cookies are designed to be specific to a particular website or domain. This means that cookies saved by one website cannot be accessed by another site, even if they are on the same server.

How are cookies sent in HTTP?

HTTP cookies are sent between a web server and a user's web browser as part of the HTTP cookie header. When a user visits a website, the server can include a "Set-Cookie" header in the HTTP response containing information about the cookie.

The "Set-Cookie" header typically includes the following information:

  • The name of the cookie
  • The value of the cookie
  • The expiration date and time of the cookie (if applicable)
  • The domain and path for which the cookie is valid

For example, a "Set-Cookie" header might look like this:

image1.png

This header would create a cookie called "user_id" with the value "12345". The cookie would be valid for any pages on the website's domain and expire on January 1, 2026.

Once the server has set the cookie, the user's web browser will automatically include the cookie in any subsequent requests to the website. The cookie data is included in the HTTP request header as a "Cookie" header, like this:

image2.png

This allows the website to access the user's cookie data and provide a personalized experience based on their preferences and activity on the site.

Types of HTTP cookies

There are three types of HTTP cookies: session cookies, persistent cookies, and third-party cookies.

Session cookies

Session cookies are temporary cookies that are deleted when you close your web browser. They are used to store information about your activity on a website during a single browsing session.

Persistent cookies

Persistent cookies are saved on your computer or mobile device and remain there until they expire or are manually deleted. They are used to remember your preferences and activity on a website over multiple browsing sessions.

Third-party cookies

Third-party cookies are created by domains other than the one the user is visiting. For example, if a website includes an advertisement from a different domain, that domain may create a cookie to track the user's activity across multiple sites.

Third-party cookies have raised additional privacy concerns, as they can be used to collect data on users without their knowledge or consent. As a result, many web browsers now include options to block or limit third-party cookies.

Why are HTTP cookies used?

HTTP cookies are used for a variety of purposes, including:

  • Storing login credentials and session information
  • Remembering user preferences, such as language or font size
  • Personalizing website content based on user behavior
  • Tracking user activity and behavior for analytics and advertising purposes

Cookies allow websites to remember your activity and preferences, making it easier to use the site and providing a more personalized experience. They also help website owners track user behavior, allowing them to improve site functionality and target advertising more effectively.

Pros and cons of HTTP cookies

While HTTP cookies have many benefits, there are also some drawbacks to consider.

Pros

  • Enable website functionality and personalization
  • Help website owners track user behavior for analytics and advertising
  • Improve user experience by remembering activities and preferences

Cons

  • Can be used to track user activity and collect personal data
  • May compromise user privacy and security
  • Some users may disable cookies to protect their privacy which can limit website functionality and prevent personalized experiences

Additionally, some websites may use third-party cookies to track user activity across multiple sites, which can be more invasive and difficult to control.

Overall, HTTP cookies can provide valuable benefits for website functionality and user experience, but they should also be used responsibly and transparently.

How to manage HTTP cookies

Most web browsers allow users to manage cookies through their settings. This can include:

  • Blocking all cookies
  • Blocking third-party cookies
  • Allowing cookies only from certain websites
  • Deleting all cookies

Users can also choose to use browser extensions or tools that block or manage cookies automatically. However, it's important to note that some website functionality may be limited if cookies are disabled or blocked.

How to enable HTTP cookies

Enabling HTTP cookies depends on the web browser you are using. Here are the general steps to enable cookies in some popular web browsers:

Google Chrome:

  • Click on the three dots icon in the top right corner of the browser window
  • Click on "Settings"
  • Scroll down and click on "Privacy and security"
  • Click on "Cookies and other site data"
  • Make sure the "Allow all cookies" option is turned on

Mozilla Firefox:

  • Click on the three lines icon in the top right corner of the browser window
  • Click on "Options"
  • Click on "Privacy & Security" in the left sidebar
  • Under the "Cookies and Site Data" section, make sure the "Accept cookies and site data from websites" option is turned on

Microsoft Edge:

  • Click on the three dots icon in the top right corner of the browser window
  • Click on "Settings"
  • Click on "Privacy, search, and services" in the left sidebar
  • Under the "Cookies and site permissions" section, make sure the "Allow sites to save and read cookie data" option is turned on

It's important to note that enabling cookies may vary depending on your browser version. If you're unsure how to enable cookies on your specific browser, you can find instructions by doing a quick online search or consulting the browser's help documentation.

Privacy concerns and cookie tracking

HTTP cookies have raised concerns about online privacy and the collection of personal data by websites, especially because some users may not be aware of the types of data that websites collect through cookies or how that data is used.

In response to these concerns, many websites now include cookie policies or privacy statements that explain how they collect and use data. Additionally, some countries have passed laws or regulations that require websites to provide users with clear information about cookies and data collection.

Cookie proxies

Cookie proxies are tools that are used to help users protect their privacy online by controlling the information that websites can access through HTTP cookies. A cookie proxy acts as a middleman between the user's web browser and the website they are visiting, intercepting and modifying HTTP requests and responses.

When a user visits a website through a cookie proxy, the proxy can modify or delete HTTP cookies to prevent the website from tracking the user's activity or collecting personal data. The cookie proxy can also add its own cookies to the user's browser, which can help obscure the user's identity and prevent websites from linking their activity across multiple sites.

Individuals or organizations can use cookie proxies to protect sensitive data and prevent unauthorized tracking or data collection. Some popular cookie proxy tools include Privoxy, FoxyProxy, and Cookie Monster.

Overall, cookie proxies can be useful for protecting user privacy and mitigating some of the privacy concerns associated with HTTP cookies. However, it's important to note that using a cookie proxy may affect the functionality of some websites and can result in a less personalized experience.

Conclusion

HTTP cookies are important to website functionality and user experience, allowing websites to remember user preferences and track activity. While some privacy concerns are associated with cookie tracking, responsible use and transparency can help mitigate these concerns.

As users, it's important to be aware of how websites use cookies and to manage them responsibly. By understanding the benefits and drawbacks of cookies, we can make informed decisions about how we interact with websites online. If you want to browse the web safely and anonymously, check out Geonode's proxy offers to find one that best suits your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What are HTTP cookies used for? HTTP cookies are used by websites to remember user preferences and activity and to provide personalized experiences. They can also be used for tracking user behavior across multiple sites.

2. What is an example of an HTTP cookie? An example of an HTTP cookie might be a login cookie that remembers a user's username or password when they revisit a website. This allows the user to stay logged in without having to re-enter their credentials every time.

3. Are HTTP cookies safe? HTTP cookies themselves are generally safe and do not pose a security risk to users. However, cookies can be used to track user activity and collect personal data, which can compromise privacy and security if used maliciously. It's important for users to be aware of what data websites are collecting through cookies and to manage them responsibly.

4. Should you accept cookies? Accepting cookies is generally safe and allows websites to provide personalized experiences based on user preferences and activity. However, users should also be aware of the privacy implications of cookies and be sure to manage them responsibly. It's always a good idea to read a website's privacy policy and to make informed decisions about whether or not to accept cookies.

References

Cookies policy. (n.d.). European Commission. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://ec.europa.eu/info/cookies_en

Delete and manage cookies. (n.d.). Microsoft Support. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/17442/windows-internet-explorer-delete-manage-cookies

Home. (n.d.). YouTube. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://www.w3.org/Protocols/rfc2109/rfc2109

How Google uses cookies – Privacy & Terms – Google. (n.d.). Privacy & Terms. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://policies.google.com/technologies/cookies?hl=en-US

_Using HTTP cookies - HTTP | MDN. _(2023, March 2). MDN Web Docs. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/HTTP/Cookies