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Most computer users encounter the term "cookies" sooner or later, but what exactly do they do? If you've ever wondered, now's the time to find out. A web cookie or computer cookie is a small file containing data which is stored in your browser. The only time that doesn't occur is if you block cookies using browser settings or an add-on.
What Does a Cookie Do?
Cookies track your activity on a website. This is more harmless than it sounds, because it generally improves the user experience, by tailoring content according to browser history. It also keeps track of handy things such as login information, so the site "remembers" you when you next visit.
The type of cookie discussed above is a first-party cookie, but there's also the session cookie to consider. Session cookies only exist on the server of the website you visit and do not access your computer. Once you close your browser, the data from a session cookie is erased. Session cookies are often used on e-commerce sites. This is why shopping carts will frequently empty if you leave a website, without going ahead with a purchase.
Are Cookies Harmful?
If cookies are harmless (and generally they are), why are browsers increasingly giving us the option of blocking them? Well, because they often track your browser behaviour for the purposes of targeted advertising. Not everyone wants their browsing history regurgitated at random in the form of ads.
Many web pages include third-party cookies, so you end up being tracked by sites other than the one you are visiting. Most browsers will allow you to selectively block third-party cookies, as they are inherently sneakier and less likely to benefit you.