Cookie Basics

In April of 2000 I read an in-depth article on Internet privacy in a large, respected newspaper, and that article contained a definition of cookies. Paraphrasing, the definition went like this:

Cookies are programs that Web sites put on your hard disk. They sit on your computer gathering information about you and everything you do on the Internet, and whenever the Web site wants to it can download all of the information the cookie has collected. [wrong]

Definitions like that are fairly common in the press. The problem is, none of that information is correct. Cookies are not programs, and they cannot run like programs do. Therefore, they cannot gather any information on their own. Nor can they collect any personal information about you from your machine.

Here is a valid definition of a cookie: A cookie is a piece of text that a Web server can store on a user's hard disk. Cookies allow a Web site to store information on a user's machine and later retrieve it. The pieces of information are stored as name-value pairs.

For example, a Web site might generate a unique ID number for each visitor and store the ID number on each user's machine using a cookie file.

­ If you use Microsoft's Internet Explorer to browse the Web, you can see all of the cookies that are stored on your machine. The most common place for them to reside is in a directory called c:windowscookies. When I look in that directory on my machine, I find 165 files. Each file is a text file that contains name-value pairs, and there is one file for each Web site that has placed cookies on my machine.

You can see in the directory that each of these files is a simple, normal text file. You can see which Web site placed the file on your machine by looking at the file name (the information is also stored inside the file). You can open each file by clicking on it.

For example, I have visited goto.com, and the site has placed a cookie on my machine. The cookie file for goto.com contains the following information:

UserID    A9A3BECE0563982D    www.goto.com/

Goto.com has stored on my machine a single name-value pair. The name of the pair is UserID, and the value is A9A3BECE0563982D. The first time I visited goto.com, the site assigned me a unique ID value and stored it on my machine.

(Note that there probably are several other values stored in the file after the three shown above. That is housekeeping information for the browser.)

Amazon.com stores a bit more information on my machine. When I look at the cookie file Amazon has created on my machine, it contains the following:

session-id-time  954242000  amazon.com/ session-id  002-4135256-7625846  amazon.com/ x-main  eKQIfwnxuF7qtmX52x6VWAXh@Ih6Uo5H  amazon.com/ ubid-main  077-9263437-9645324  amazon.com/

It appears that Amazon stores a main user ID, an ID for each session, and the time the session started on my machine (as well as an x-main value, which could be anything).

The vast majority of sites store just one piece of information -- a user ID -- on your machine. But a site can store many name-value pairs if it wants to.

A name-value pair is simply a named piece of data. It is not a program, and it cannot "do" anything. A Web site can retrieve only the information that it has placed on your machine. It cannot retrieve information from other cookie files, nor any other information from your machine.