Cookies — Facts and Myths
A cookie is a very small text file sent from a Web site such as ours to the computer you are using. The file is stored in your computer's browser so that when you visit the Web site again, (or if you are shopping, when you have selected all of the items you want to buy), the Web site's computer can read back the information in that file. This helps make your visit easier and more convenient for you.
For example, many Web sites (Yahoo, Amazon, the Weather Channel, The Wall Street Journal, to name just a few) allow you to personalize the information they send to you. After you tell them how you want them to do it, your instructions are stored in their cookie in your computer's browser. The next time you visit the Web site, its computer almost instantly reads your instructions, finds the information you want, and then displays it the way you want to see it.
Many stockbrokers and other financially-related Web sites allow you to track a portfolio of stocks or mutual funds. First, you tell them information about the stocks or mutual funds you want them to include in your portfolio. This information is stored in a cookie in your browser. When you check on your portfolio, the Web site looks at the information in your cookie, combines it with the current price of each stock or mutual fund in your portfolio, and shows you the combined results on your computer's monitor. Without the cookie, you would have to reenter all of the information about each stock or mutual fund every time you wanted to check on them.
When people shop online, they often buy two or more items at the same time from a single Web site. Most Web sites use a virtual shopping cart to keep track of the items you want to buy. A shopping cart is another type of cookie. It works like a shopping cart in a grocery store. When you select an item, a small bit of information about it is added to your shopping cart. When you are ready to check out, the Web site looks at everything in your shopping cart, totals it up, and shows you an itemized bill for your approval. If you OK it, you complete your purchase, and the things you ordered will shortly be on their way to you. Without the cookie, you would have to complete the purchase transaction for one item, including complete payment and shipping information for that item, before you could select (and buy) the next item.
Web sites often ask visitors like you for their opinions on a variety of topics. This can help the owners of the Web sites provide better information, or it can help you by showing you how other consumers feel about something. (For example, a Web site could be asking seniors for their opinions about topics as diverse as CD interest rates, discount prescriptions, a retirement calculator, Medicare benefits, assisted living — among others.)
To be certain that the results are accurate requires another type of cookie, one that keeps track of your opinion. Once again, this cookie is stored in your browser. Without the cookie, someone could vote hundreds — or even thousands of times — thereby invalidating everyone else's opinions.
You may have heard rumors that cookies can invade your privacy. That is not true. According to The Wall Street Journal, "Cookies, for the most part, are utterly benign." Here are a few facts to remember:
Cookies cannot be used to get information from your hard drive.
A Web site can read only the cookies that it puts into your browser. A Web site cannot read cookies created by any other Web site.
A cookie cannot be used as a virus.
Cookies will not fill up your hard drive (it would take about 100 million cookies to fill up a 10GB drive; this is virtually impossible).
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