Cookies are a common and core component of the modern internet, but many people often wonder what these “cookies” are, how they function, and whether they should be a cause for concern. This article explores what cookies are, how they work, and how they impact your online experience, privacy, and security.

What Are Cookies?

So, what are cookies on a website? A cookie is a small piece of data from a website stored in your browser to recognize you when you return. Cookies first emerged around the early to mid-1990s and have since become essential online.

Why Do They Call It a Cookie?

In the Unix programming language, there’s something called a magic cookie, which is a way for data to be sent within a program.

The “magic cookie” name came from fortune cookies, which have messages in them, much like how the magic cookie carries data. The name “cookie,” therefore, stems from comparing the hidden messages in a fortune cookie and the data carried in these small digital files.

How Do Cookies Work?

Web browsers and websites communicate with each other in what’s referred to as a “stateless language.” This means that, without cookies, the two wouldn’t remember previous interactions.

To tie them together, a website sends a web browser a cookie with a unique ID the first time they communicate, and the web browser repeats the unique ID back to the website every time it sends a message.

Why Do Websites Use Cookies?

You may wonder, “What are cookies used for on websites?” By now, you have a basic understanding of what cookies are and why they exist, which essentially boils down to tracking. Cookies allow websites to remember specific user information, enhancing functionality and providing personalized experiences.

What Information Do Cookies Collect?

Cookies act like digital memory, gathering details about your online activity to provide a more tailored and seamless browsing experience.

The information collected can include your browsing activity, like sites you’ve visited. They may also record your purchase history, keeping track of the items you’ve bought or placed in your shopping cart. Additionally, cookies often store your login credentials, letting you stay logged in across different sessions.

An example of this could be the data string “Clare Stouffer Gen employee” for a user on an employer’s web portal, which would be used to identify Clare Stouffer, a Gen employee who is a writer and editor for the company’s blogs.

Different Types of Cookies

As you’re about to see, not all cookies are created equal. There are different types of cookies, each serving a unique role and providing different functionalities for various websites and platforms.

Understanding these types can help us appreciate how they contribute to our online experiences.

Session Cookies

Session cookies are temporary and only last for your current browsing session. They’re essential for functionalities like keeping items in your shopping cart while browsing a site.

Persistent Cookies

Unlike session cookies, persistent cookies remain in your browser even after you’ve closed it. They have a specific expiration date and are used to remember your preferences and login details across multiple sessions.

Authentication Cookies

Authentication cookies are a critical part of online security. They verify the user’s identity once logged in, ensuring unauthorized users cannot access sensitive information.

Tracking Cookies

Websites use tracking cookies to gather information about your browsing habits and preferences. They help build a profile of your online activity, which can be used for targeted advertising.

Zombie Cookies

Zombie cookies are controversial since they automatically regenerate after being deleted, making them difficult to manage. They can be seen as intrusive, as they can continue to track a user’s behavior even after attempts to delete them.

First-Party vs Third-Party Cookies: What’s the Difference?

First-party cookies are directly stored by the websites or domains a user visits. They’re generally considered safer and are used to enhance the user experience by remembering preferences and settings.

Unlike first-party cookies, third-party cookies are created by domains that are not the website (or domain) that you are visiting. These are often used for advertising and can track your activity across various sites.

Why Cookies Can Be Dangerous

While cookies are integral to how we browse the web, it’s also essential to understand their potential risks.

First, it’s worth emphasizing that cookies aren’t inherently harmful and that the data in them doesn’t change. They aren’t able to infect other machines with malware, making them benign in this sense.

However, the danger lies not in the cookies themselves but in how malicious actors might exploit them. For instance, some cyberattacks can hijack cookies and enable unauthorized access to your browsing sessions.

Cookie Hijacking

Cookie hijacking, or session hijacking, occurs when an attacker gains unauthorized access to a user’s cookie. Since cookies often contain information identifying the user, possessing a hijacked cookie can allow the attacker to impersonate the user.

Third-Party Tracking Cookies

As discussed earlier, third-party tracking cookies can follow your online activity across various sites. These cookies can create a detailed profile of your online behavior, preferences, and personal information.

Zombie Cookies

Given their persistent and regenerative nature, zombie cookies can also cause some concern. They continue to track a user’s behavior even after attempts to delete them, leading to questions about user control.

Misuse by Malicious Websites

Some unscrupulous websites might misuse cookies to gather more information than necessary or utilize it in unethical ways. These actions can lead to breaches of privacy and trust, especially if the data is sold or shared without user consent.

Allowing or Removing Cookies

Cookies are essential to the modern online experience, providing functionality, convenience, and personalization. However, they also have potential downsides, particularly concerning privacy and security.


  • Online Shopping Experience: Almost all shopping sites use cookies to allow you to put items in a cart, leave the page, and return with your cart intact.
  • Form Submissions: Cookies can remember submitted information, like your name.
  • Personalization: From language preferences to currency choices, cookies enable websites to remember your particular preferences.


  • Privacy: Most browsers are set to accept cookies by default. This means cookies are stored on your machine whenever you browse the internet.
  • Local Storage: While often called “little” files, website cookies can accumulate on your hard drive over time.
  • Unauthorized Data Collection: Some websites may use cookies unethically, such as selling the information collected to third parties or using it to hack into social networks or other online accounts.

How to Manage Cookies for a Better Browsing Experience

Cookies, while small, play a significant role in shaping your online experience. Knowing how to manage them ensures a balance between convenience and privacy.

Adjusting Cookie Settings in Your Browser

All popular browsers offer settings that allow you to control how cookies are handled. The impact of these settings on user experience and privacy includes:

  • Allowing All Cookies: Websites remember your preferences, so you remain logged into sites. However, this also means all your actions are potentially tracked, leading to privacy concerns.
  • Blocking Third-Party Cookies: This prevents ads from tracking you across websites. However, it might not stop all tracking, and some site functionalities might break.
  • Blocking All Cookies: Here, you get maximum privacy at the cost of convenience. Most personalized features on websites won’t work, like shopping carts will forget items.

Using Browser Extensions for Cookie Management

Browser extensions or add-ons can offer more sophisticated control over cookies than built-in browser settings. Some popular extensions for cookie management include “EditThisCookie,” “Ghostery,” and “Cookie AutoDelete.” These tools provide granular control over cookies and allow you to view and edit them.

A significant advantage of these extensions is that they offer enhanced control and can be more user-friendly than editing browser settings. A key drawback is that they may pose security risks, especially when from unverified sources.

Clearing Cookies Regularly

Regularly clearing cookies can remove tracking data, potentially speeding up your browser and resolving issues you might face on some websites.

However, it comes with downsides to the user experience. Clearing your cookies means:

  • You’ll lose saved preferences on websites.
  • Shopping carts will be emptied.
  • You’ll have to log into websites all over again.
  • Personalized website experiences like language preferences will be reset.

Cookies and Online Security

Online security becomes increasingly crucial as the world continues to become more interconnected. While cookies often work behind the scenes, they play a key role in our everyday web experience, both in terms of functionality and security. So, what are cookies on a website, and how do they keep you safe online?

Secure cookies are only transmitted over secure (HTTPS) connections. Websites use secure cookies to ensure malicious actors cannot intercept any data contained within the cookie (like session information or login details).

Secure cookies can shield against certain cyberattacks, including man-in-the-middle attacks where hackers can intercept data sent between the user and the website. However, we can prevent this interception by ensuring cookies are only sent over secure connections, fortifying our online defenses.

However, the secure nature of these cookies doesn’t render them immune to all threats. We must look at the potential security risks linked with cookies to get a fuller picture.

Potential Security Risks with Cookies

While cookies are instrumental in delivering a seamless online experience, they aren’t without potential pitfalls in cybersecurity.

  1. Cookie Theft: If attackers manage to access a cookie, they can potentially “steal” the user’s session, known as session hijacking. This can give them unauthorized access to accounts, allowing them to pose as the legitimate user.
  2. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS): In these attacks, malicious scripts are embedded in websites, which can then be used to steal cookies. If the cookies aren’t flagged as HttpOnly, these scripts can access them, potentially leading to compromised accounts.
  3. Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF): Attackers trick users into carrying out actions on websites where they’re authenticated without their knowledge. Here, hackers can perform unauthorized actions by exploiting the cookies on the victim’s behalf.
  4. Third-Party Tracking: Not a direct “attack” per se, but a potential privacy concern. Some cookies track user behavior across various websites, creating a profile of their online activities. These profiles might be sold or used for targeted advertising without the user’s consent.


Can Cookies Steal Passwords?

Cookies aren’t designed to steal passwords, but they do store information that aids websites in recognizing you. If malicious entities misuse cookies, they could exploit this data for unauthorized access. But it’s key to remember that while cookies carry session details, they don’t inherently contain sensitive information like passwords.

What Happens If You Don’t Accept Cookies?

Should you choose not to accept cookies, your browsing experience might be impacted in various ways. Without cookies, websites may not remember you between sessions, which means each visit can feel like the first time.

Why Does Every Website Want Me to Accept Cookies?

Almost every modern website prompts users to accept cookies primarily because they enhance user experience. Cookies allow sites to remember user preferences, track web activity for analytics, serve targeted advertisements, and provide personalized content.

Do Cookies Contain Personal Information?

Cookies can contain various information, ranging from user IDs to browsing preferences. While they might not directly store overtly personal details like your name or address, they often hold unique identifiers that can be used to track and profile user behavior across sessions and websites.

What to Do if Your Online Privacy is Compromised

You must move fast if you think your online privacy might have been compromised due to cookies. Unusual account activities, such as unsolicited password reset prompts or unauthorized settings changes, are often glaring indicators.

Similarly, encountering unexpected, highly personalized advertisements or frequent browser redirects to unfamiliar sites can cause alarm. Another cause for concern is the sudden appearance of unfamiliar browser extensions or toolbars you don’t recall downloading. If you’re experiencing any warning signs, you must act promptly to secure your account.

Start by resetting your passwords, ensuring they’re distinct for each account. Simultaneously, take a moment to clear your browser cookies. To further defend yourself, consider enabling two-factor or multi-factor authentication for your accounts, offering a heightened security barrier. It’s also wise to scrutinize your account settings, checking for any unauthorized alterations, such as changes in recovery emails.

However, you’re not alone in this; certain resources and services are ready to assist in these unsettling times. The identity theft protection services offered by IdentityIQ keep a watchful eye on your personal information 24/7, allowing you to act quickly if suspicious activity is detected.