Cookies are text files containing small snippets of information such as login details to identify your computer when you connect to the internet. They are used to identify and improve your web browsing experience by allowing you to identify specific users.
When you visit a new website, you’ll first see a permission request for your consent to allow cookies. Most users will respond by clicking ‘yes’ and moving on. The cookie consent also justifies why they want your permission. The most common justification is that users require them for smooth website navigation.
Cookies do have the potential to improve your browsing experience. But is that all there is to it? Are they really safe? Can we rely on them?
When your browser is connected to the server, the server automatically creates cookies with relevant data. A unique number identifies this information to you and your computer. When your computer and the network server exchange cookies, the server reads the ID and understands what information to serve you individually.
What Do Cookies Do?
When you visit a new website, cookies create a unique identity for you. The web server that stores the website’s data sends short identifying info to your web browser. Your device stores them locally so that whenever you visit a certain website, the relevant cookies will be accessed from the local storage.
When a user returns to that same website in the future, the web browser collects the relevant, personalised data and sends it to the web server in the form of a cookie. During this session, your browser will retrieve and send back the data collected from your previous sessions.
At first glance, it is easy to misunderstand their use since it stores user data. But at the same time, one has to agree that their usage is necessary for a page to run.
In a more understanding way, let’s say you are using social media. You probably won’t stay on the same page while surfing the site. Thanks to cookies, users can move through the page seamlessly. Without them, the website will not send your information to the next page, which automatically means you will have to log in again and again when moving to other pages.
How thet should be used
- Session Management. Cookies, for example, allow websites to recognise users and remember their unique login information and preferences, such as sports news versus politics.
- Personalisation. The most popular approach to cookies used to personalise your sessions is through customised advertising. You may view specific items or parts of a website, and cookies use this information to help create targeted ads that you may find wanting to click.
- Tracking. Shopping websites use them to track inventory that users have previously viewed, allowing the sites to suggest other similar products that users may have shown interest in.
Types of Cookies
There are two different types:
- Magic Cookies
- HTTP Cookies
Though both of them are similar in terms of functionality, they are used in entirely different cases:
Magic cookies are an old computing term that refers to packets of information sent and received without any changes. They are used to access database systems, such as a company’s internal network etc. Before the advent of modern or HTTP cookies, these were used.
HTTP cookies track, personalise, and save information about each user’s session. In this case, the session refers to the amount of time spent on a specific webpage. We use them when we access the web. Unfortunately, they can be vulnerable, and they’re also exploited as a key in malicious activities like data theft and leaks.
There are two types of HTTP cookies – Session and Persistent cookies:
These are temporary. The browser only stores them when it is open. They disappear when the user closes the browser. Session cookies are only utilised when browsing a website, and they are kept in random access memory and are never saved to the hard disc.
Session cookies are not vulnerable to security threats since they are discarded after use, making them the safer alternative.
As the name implies, these will not be deleted like session cookies. They are used for a more extended period. They have an expiration date and are not erased when the browser is closed, and they can be erased by the user or when the expiration date comes up.
They can trace your browsing activities because they are an entity that will not be deleted unless removed forcibly. However, since persistent cookies are present for a more extended amount of time than session cookies and may essentially track what you’re doing across several sites, they pose a greater security risk.
Cookies are stored and managed through web browsers. If you look through the settings, you may see a list of websites your web browser uses to store them. Only the website to which the cookie belongs has access to them. This prevents rogue websites from prying on your log in sessions and stealing them.
Allowing or Removing Cookies
Cookies are not particularly necessary to further continue your online surfing. However, you may customise which cookies are stored on your computer or mobile device if you want to.
Having cookies is the better and recommended choice since browsing will not be smooth and rather complicated without them.
Allowing and disabling cookies is in your hands.
Steps to allow cookies:
- Locate the cookie section, which is usually found under Settings > Privacy.
- To allow cookies, check the boxes. “Allow local data” is an option that appears from time to time.
- You can simply uncheck these options if you do not want cookies.
- Removing cookies can help you reduce the chance of privacy violations. It can also clear your browser’s tracking and personalisation settings.
Steps to remove cookies:
Regular cookies are simple to remove, but they may make specific websites more challenging to navigate. In addition, users may have to re-enter their data for each visit if cookies are not used on the internet.
Cookies are stored in various locations by different browsers, but in general, you can:
- Locate the Settings, Privacy area, which is frequently referred to as Tools, Internet Options, or Advanced.
- In the windows, look for options and click remove to remove the cookies.
Before deleting cookies, consider the ease of use expected from a cookie-enabled website. Here are some tips that do not require the deletion of cookies:
- To get rid of tracking cookies and other destructive sorts, you can seek the help of antivirus software, which prevents the entry of malicious cookies.
- Using the Virtual Private Network (VPN), you can anonymise your web browsing. Since this service redirects your web traffic to a distant server belonging to another nation, the cookies are stored in the remote server, not in your local computer.
Regardless of how you handle cookies, it’s best to be cautious and clean up after yourself regularly.
Advantages of Using Cookies
Cookies provide many really beneficial characteristics. They are as follows:
- Cookies are used on eCommerce websites to remember your preferences and recommend comparable products to those you’ve seen before.
- On websites, cookies are used to save user preferences. Without cookies, you will not need to update your settings and have them persist across page loads.
Disadvantages of Using Cookies
As valuable as they can be, they also have some significant disadvantages. They are as follows:
- Cookies are prone to cyberattacks.
- Ads introduce cookies to your browser, which can track your web behaviour.
- Ads can lead to data theft and other invasions of privacy.
- Cookies track your personal information, and adverts are tailored to you as a result.
Why Can Cookies Be Dangerous?
Cookies are not dangerous. They are not made of complex programs, so you will not need to worry about them being risky.
However, cookies can be hijacked and used as tools to target systems.
Here are some cookie types you should look out for that may cause dangers for your data:
First-Party vs Third-Party Cookies
First-party cookies enable a website to perform various functions, such as allowing you to add several items to your online order. The website that you are visiting creates them.
First party cookies are actually safe since the visiting website issues them. So make sure while allowing these cookies that you are on a secure, reputable website.
The most typical application of third-party cookies is to monitor a person who has clicked on an ad and associate them with the domain that referred them.
When you visit a website and click on an advertisement, a third-party cookie is created to link your traffic to the page where the ad was displayed.
Even though cookies play an essential role in our browsing activities, they pose various risks, particularly in terms of invasion of privacy and the security of websites that use them.
Third-party cookies are even riskier. They’re generated by websites that aren’t the same as those that users are currently browsing, usually because they’re related to adverts on that page.
Advertisers and analytics organisations typically use third-party cookies to follow an individual’s surfing behaviour throughout the web on any site that contains their adverts.
Zombie cookies are something that every user should look out for because, like zombies, there is no solution for them.
Previously, we saw that users could delete cookies if they did not need them. But unfortunately, that’s not the case for zombie cookies. Users can not delete zombie cookies through mere browser settings.
Every time you delete the cookies, the same cookies will appear again the next time you see them.
However, not all zombie cookies are problematic; some are used for legitimate purposes. But, it is still best to be on the lookout for zombie cookies.
Risks Caused by Internet Cookies
Cookies come with various threats because they are susceptible to unwanted security breaches. Here are some of the risks you should be aware of as a result of using cookies:
Cookie fraud is a term used to describe other hostile websites’ activities to perpetrate destructive cyberattacks.
Malicious websites that copy a legal website’s proxy and utilise the data to project attacks are the most common perpetrators of cookie fraud.
The following are four types of cookie scams and what they entail:
Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)
The user will receive a cookie when visiting a malicious website in cross-site scripting. This cookie has a script payload that targets another website; however, the malicious cookie is disguised and appears to have originated from the targeted website. As a result, when a user visits the targeted site, this counterfeit cookie is delivered to the server of the targeted site.
Assailants may exploit this vulnerability to circumvent access constraints like the same-origin policy.
When this happens, the user will be given a malware cookie that contains the cookie’s issuer’s session ID. When the naive user attempts to connect to a targeted domain, the user’s session ID is not recorded, but the cookie issuer is. This gives the impression that the issuer is executing particular operations on the specified domain, but it is the user who is doing so.
Attackers can employ this form of cookie fraud to hijack regular user sessions.
Cross-Site Request Forgery Attack (CSRF)
When a user visits a genuine site, they obtain a legit cookie. However, when they visit a malicious site, it instructs the user’s browser to conduct action against the specific website they previously visited.
The regular site receives a request along with the legitimate cookie. The identical action is executed since it appears to have been prompted by the legitimate user but is not, and the cookie is already infected by the malicious site.
Cookie Tossing Attack
In a cookie tossing attack, a malicious site sends a cookie to a user that is meant to look like it came from the targeted site’s subdomain. As a result, all cookies, including valid ones and the subdomain cookie, are delivered when the user visits the targeted site.
Where the first cookie parsed is the subdomain, this data will take precedence over any lawful data contained in the other valid cookies.
Through the above examples, we know that, in the majority of situations of cookie fraud, cookies are used to undertake malicious acts using a genuine user’s identity or to falsify a legitimate user’s identity.
Defence Against Cookie Fraud
Cookies aren’t always dangerous. True, they can be exploited for malicious attacks, but they are also necessary for the seamless running of websites.
Installing antivirus software will prevent the activities a malicious cookie may present. Along with antivirus software, here are other tips you can follow to ensure your system’s safety.
- Keep Your Website Updated
Let’s face it, cookies are inevitable. But on the other hand, Malicious cookies are a source of concern, which is why it is essential to keep your websites up to date. With each update, a browser gains innovative features to prevent harmful cookies from entering the system.
- Avoid Suspicious Websites
Whenever you somehow end up on a new website, which is warned by your browser as a suspicious one, it is better to heed the advice and avoid the website on the whole.
Cookies play an integral role in the smooth functioning of websites. However, even though we encounter cookies practically every time we visit a new website, not everyone understands what they imply.
Normal users may not need to be aware of cookies, but developers must be mindful of them while developing websites. So, we hope you’ve gotten the gist of cookies and that your newfound knowledge will come in handy while programming.
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