by Auren Hoffman

What is a Cookie?

While rummaging through Internet newsgroups or various techie web site, you might come across the term "cookie." Cookies have been attributed to everything from an extension of big brother to the be all, end all, marketing solution. As is usually the case, this piece of technology fits neither description. Cookies a are powerful, yet limited, tool that even the occasional web surfer should understand.

A cookie is a text file that a Netscape or Microsoft browser makes that identifies what site you hit and gives you a unique identification tag for the cookie. Each cookie is stored in a basic text file on a web surfer's hard drive. If you use a PC and you use Netscape's Navigator, you have a file on your hard drive called "cookies.txt". If you have used more that one type of Netscape browser (like Netscape 3.0 and Netscape Gold 2.0) you might have more than one "cookies.txt" file. This file usually resides in the same folder the Netscape application is in.

Microsoft's cookie is stored in its own folder called "Cookies." This folder usually resides in the "Windows" directory of your main hard drive. In the folder, each cookie has its own file. Check it out--you can see them yourself.

The cookie is a stream of text that identifies you to a particular web site. A cookie can help a webmaster determine when you get to site, when you leave, and what pages you visit within the site. If the cookie is attached to a name, a site might greet you when you visit, even without logging in. Many sites, including the Wall Street Journal, allow users to use cookies instead of logging in with passwords.

Cookies can also be used to store aggregate data about an individual. Infoseek pioneered using this technology. Infoseek tracks what keywords you search by so they can build up a profile of you over time. It stores this information encoded in your cookie file. For example, the value of my Infoseek cookie is "B94FD6E51D3352909227124F8A3D0AC3". Infoseek uses this information to serve up advertisements that you are more likely to respond to. For instance, since I do a lot of searches on Internet cutting-edge technology--I might be likely to see ads for high-tech internet magazines, web products, or computer hardware. I might even see high-tech ads when I search for information on the New York Yankees because Infoseek knows that I am still likely to respond to the ad.

What is the Big Deal About Cookies?

Cookies are a very simple but extremely important tool. Many sites that require entrants to use cookies so that security can be kept at a maximum. Sites like BirdgePath, the job finder server, and Guestimate employ cookies to make their system more secure by tracking a user as she travels the site. When you log in, you receive a cookie that identifies you to the server. It can then pull up information about you from the database and store characteristics on you like how many times you logged in or what careers you might be interest in.

Using cookies when programming web sites is fairly complicated, but they are transparent to the visitor. Nowadays, new tools like Cold Fusion make cookie programming easy.

Who is Using Cookies?

Many people cry "big brother" when they first hear of cookies because they are uninformed. Cookies, themselves, are harmless. It is only a text file that resides on your hard drive. At any time, if you feel you are being watched too much, you can erase a cookie from the file. It is that easy.

My Opinion of Cookies

Cookies, like any tool, could be misused by the unscrupulous. But then again, most frauds are committed via the telephone and I don't see people getting rid of that any time soon.

Information Sources for Cookies

For more information about cookies, check out

Auren Hoffman ( is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and now is a consultant with Kyber Systems an Internet database firm based in Berkeley, CA. Check out Auren's weekly column called SUMMATION.

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2022-02-10 · · Terms © December Communications, Inc.