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When we talk about cookies in the context of the internet, we aren’t talking about chocolate chips. A browser cookie is a small piece of data that’s sent from a website and stored on your computer. But why do we need them? And could cookies harm your computer?

Are browser cookies safe?

Browser cookies are not dangerous. In fact, they can improve your experience online. Cookies are nothing more than small text files stored in your browser’s directory. They’re essentially messages passed between your browser and the site you’re visiting. Your computer saves these cookies—filled with information about your internet activity—and uses them to make your next browsing session even smoother.

Cookies in context

Let’s use online shopping as an example. The first time you visit Amazon, a cookie is created—it works like an ID badge. As you browse the online store and add items to your cart, Amazon updates the cookie text file with your search history and cart information. If you close your Amazon window before completing your purchase, the cookie is saved and stored on your computer. Next time you return to the site, your browser will flash its ID badge, giving Amazon the information it needs to repopulate your cart and recommend similar products. This way, you can pick up right where you left off, even days later. In a world without cookies, you’d have to start shopping from scratch every time.

It’s important to note that the information stored in a cookie isn’t accessible to everyone. Only the website that creates it can access what’s inside – this data can’t be passed along to other servers.

Are there bad cookies?

Contrary to popular belief, cookies cannot contain viruses or other malware. The only potential threat hinges on how you define privacy.

Ever wondered why you see online advertisements for sites you’ve visited before? This is due in part to cookies. While many cookies are meant to make your time online more efficient, cookies can also be generated by companies that advertise on the website. These third-party cookies identify the sites you frequently visit in order to tailor online advertisements to your interests.

But, in the grand scheme of things, cookies are just a drop in the bucket. Advertising companies can collect demographic information by identifying your IP address, location, browser version and even the type of device you’re using. Disabling cookies will only stop a small stream of that data.

Should I disable browser cookies?

While you can disable browser cookies, you may not get far without them. Most websites require cookies in order to create an account and stay logged in. And you might get frustrated with the wonky web experience that’s served up for sugar-free browsers. If you’re truly concerned about privacy, it’s better to block third-party cookies only. Most browsers have an option for this in their settings.

The bottom line

All in all, browser cookies are nothing to fear. They’re used to improve website interface and leverage predictive technology that makes your life easier. Much like their crumbly counterparts, browser cookies result in more smiles than scowls.