From the Kenosha News on 7-10-05

Understand Cookies to Practice Safe Computing

   If you've heard of cookies (the computer kind) but don't know what they are, it's a good idea to learn what they do and don't do to keep your computer safe but not worry needlessly. A cookie is a text file that an internet site can place on your hard drive to track the web movements of its users.

   If you access the worldwide web, you have cookies on your computer. In most cases, they are harmless, but they can have negative repercussions, including compromising your privacy and generating pop-ups.

   There are several reasons that web sites use cookies, including:

  • Having the ability to personalize information
  • Helping with on-line sales/services
  • Collecting demographic information
  • Helping programmers keep the site content fresh and relevant to the user's interests

   Often, cookies are used to remember your login information or preferences for a web site. Recently, Judy from the Kenosha Senior Citizen Center told me that, when she goes to the PBS web site, it always shows her the programming for the local Milwaukee station. She wanted to look at the programming for WTTW (channel 11) in Chicago. What to do? Since her preference information is stored in a cookie, one solution would be to delete the cookies from her computer.

   Before you decide to delete all your cookies, keep in mind that this may require you to login again to sites that have been happily remembering your login for some time. Still, some cookies, especially those from "Doubleclick," can cause pop-ups, so it's a good idea to clean your cookies periodically. Here's how:

  • Launch Internet Explorer. (If you use a different browser, you'll need to find how to delete cookies in that software.)
  • Click on the Tools menu and drag to Internet Options
  • In the middle of the General tab, look for the Delete Cookies button and click on it
  • When prompted, click OK
  • Wait a few seconds.

While you're in your browser settings, you can also set how strict you want your computer to be about accepting cookies. Click on the Privacy tab. I have my slider set to Medium. Read the descriptions of the settings to decide there you want it. If you set it too high, you may not be able to visit some web sites. Click OK to exit. Generally, you can't (nor should you need to) prevent all cookies.

   There's no need to delete cookies to save space. Your computer will only save so many, and when the "cookie area" is full, it will delete the least used ones.

   One thing you don't have to worry about is cookies containing viruses. Since cookies only contain straight text, they won't carry viruses.

   Besides pop-ups, the most dangerous thing about cookies is that they "report back" information about you and your web use, including:

  • Name & IP address of your computer
  • The brand of browser and operating system you are using
  • The URL of the page you last viewed

   (Thanks to Twila Cobb, from my spring Management Information Systems class at Carthage, for providing information for this topic.)

By Carol Sabbar from the Kenosha News on 7-10-05