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Computer Cookies for Dummies: Understanding How They Work and Potential Security Risks

written by: •edited by: Bill Fulks•updated: 3/25/2010

In most cases a cookie is harmless. However, a cookie can be used to track information that you would rather keep private. Is leaving your system open to accept any and all cookies a good idea or a serious security issue? Read on to find out…

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    Cookies for Dummies

    So what is a cookie? Yes, it’s something Tollhouse makes. Those little elves make them too. But in the online world, cookies are something completely different. Let’s start out by explaining what they’re not. In spite of what you may have heard, cookies are not viruses. However, they can pose certain security risks; especially in the realm of web browser privacy. Cookies are basically little tracking devices and as such, could theoretically lead a malicious virus and/or individual to vulnerabilities in your system.

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    Security Risks

    Cookies are tracking devices for websites They keep track of commonly used information to help your browser operate more efficiently. They usually won't store passwords but often times track browser history, usernames, and other possible identifiers that can be used to gain access to accounts or exploit security vulnerabilities in your computer. Often they are simply text or web URL files so they won’t contain programs (i.e. viruses). The problem that cookies pose is that they have the ability to “share” this information over the internet. I don’t know about you but regardless of whether or not they have my password, I still don’t want my username for my bank account to be known! Why make it easy for someone by giving them one half of the puzzle?

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    What To Do

    So what can be done to guard against cookie use and abuse? There are a couple different ways to manage cookies but two sure fire ways to avoid issues:

    1. Regular browser maintenance
    2. Antivirus and antispyware software

    Regular browser maintenance is essential to enjoying a secure surfing experience. Make an effort to delete your cookies and cache on a regular basis. This will not only guard against over sharing of your cookies but can often speed up your browser performance.Antivirus and antispam software applications will often identify and eliminate cookies that pose a potential security risk. This is another reason why it’s so important to keep your antivirus definitions up to date. Antivirus software is kind of useless if it doesn’t know what it should be looking for!

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    Wrap Up

    Make browser maintenance and regular antivirus updates a part of your weekly routine. The more vigilant you are about staying on top of this, the more secure your environment will be. Happy surfing!