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Cookies and Security

You might hear talk of cookies when you hear about the Web, or you might not. Some people don’t even know cookies exist, yet others view them as essential to the operation of the Web. The truth is that cookies are handy tools, but not essential. A cookie is a small bit of data—a simple name/data pair—that is written to the client system (the one you are operating, not the server that holds the Web pages). Cookies can store something like Fullname=BobJohnson or PhoneNumber=5551212, or they can also have multiple entries. The reason cookies are a potential security issue isn’t that someone can compromise the security of your system directly by using one, but think about the information that could be stored in cookies. For example, if you visit a site, and a button next to the logon says “Remember My Password,” this could create a cookie that is written to your system in the form Password=Mypassword. If the site owner didn’t do a good job of obscuring the information in the cookie, the next Web site you visit might try to read that cookie to glean out the password information. Personalized sites should never use persistent cookies (those that are written to your system as files) to store personal data. In the past, some have and by doing so have accidentally exposed customer information to other sites that were looking for it.

The best way to deal with cookies is to be aware they exist. Don’t use Remember My Password options on sites for home banking, stock trading, or IRA accounts, for example. If you want to find out what cookies are already on your system, you can check in your Windows\cookies directory, assuming you have Windows and Internet Explorer. (Other browsers and operating systems might store the data in other locations, but usually in a directory called Cookies or something similar.) One warning: You probably shouldn’t delete any cookies in the directory unless you know what you’re doing or unless you don’t care that you might have to reconfigure some sites to your preferences.


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