Wednesday, Jul 02 2014 01:00 PM

Tech Wire: Do 'cookies' harm computer?

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Matthew Sgherzi

If you use a computer, then you have undoubtedly heard the term "cookies" in the past. Anything from clearing your cookies to downloading more or not enough has likely come up in the past. The question is: What are cookies, do you need them and are they harmful?


Cookies, by definition, are unique to you. This is what cookies are designed to do: When you log in to your online account (E-mail, Facebook, etc.), you download a file called a cookie that is unique to you. Once you download this cookie, that website, such as Facebook, now knows that you are in fact you and it keeps you logged in to only your account. This is how a website knows to bring John Doe to John Doe's e-mail account when he logs in and not to someone else's account.

The issue with cookies is that they, like almost everything else, have been exploited. Many cookies are now downloaded to your computer that actually track which websites you go to, how long you stay there, what you do and more. This is why sometimes you may have noticed that you get a spam message in your e-mail based on a website you recently visited. A tracking cookie saw that you navigated to a website about car parts, saw you logged in to your e-mail and then sent you a spam message based on car parts.

The cookies that track where you go are typically placed within advertisement images on websites. Sometimes the websites have partnerships with advertising agencies and will put a tracking cookie on the website itself.

Different Types of Cookies

There is some confusion regarding cookies that should be cleared up. There are two types of cookies that exist: First-party and Third-party. For example, if you go to Amazon.com and your computer downloads a cookie from Amazon, then that is a first-party cookie. However, if you go to Amazon.com and you download a cookie from an advertisement, then that is a third-party cookie.

This means that just because a cookie exists on your computer from, say, a pornographic website does not mean you went to a pornographic website; it means you went to a website that happened to download a cookie to your computer from a separate website possibly looking to advertise pornographic material. This distinction is important because so-called "IT forensics" will often claim that cookies on your computer reveal what websites you browsed to. This all depends on the type of cookie it is and how it was downloaded, not necessarily where it came from.

So those are the basics of what cookies are, what type of cookies exists and how they can be good or bad. If you're concerned about bad cookies, I suggest installing "Ad Block Plus" for your web browser and enabling the "Disable Tracking" feature. Couple this along with the immunization features of SpyBot and SpywareBlaster and you are on your way to defending yourself against tracking cookies in the future.

MATTHEW SGHERZI lives in Tehachapi where he has operated an IT business since 2007 (tehachapicomputers.com).

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