Cookies (The Slightly Less Delicious Ones)

Why are the tracking files that websites place on your computer called cookies? The answer (somewhat) involves shopping carts, Chinese takeout, and a German fairy tale.

We’ve talked about cookies in the past, but browser cookies (also called internet cookies or HTTP cookies) are a little more crumbly and a little less delicious.

What Is an Internet Cookie?

A cookie is a small text file that a web server sends to your browser when you visit a website. The next time you visit that website, your computer checks to see if it has stored a cookie, and if it has, it sends the information in the cookie back to the website. The cookie tells the website your previous browsing preferences—such as your preferred language, items you’ve added to your cart when shopping online, what links you’ve clicked on and pages you’ve visited before, and so on. The purpose of a cookie is to help you have a better browsing experience by making the site more relevant and useful to you as a unique user. Cookies are also used to protect sensitive information and authenticate users when they log in to their account.

Despite the usefulness of cookies, there is controversy about the amount of data collected by some websites and the way that data is used. The fact that they collect and store information without the user necessarily knowing about it has some people uneasy, and we’ve all encountered ads that seemed way too personalized due to third-party tracking cookies. Luckily, most cookies are harmless and simply speed up browsing and make websites more dynamic.

So Why Are They Called Cookies?

Web programmer Lou Montulli of Netscape Communications first used the term “cookie” in 1994 in reference to a package of data that a program receives and sends back without changing. This type of file had already been used in computing and was called a “magic cookie,” but Montulli ingeniously adapted them for use on the web. He created a system for an online store to solve the problem of servers that were overloaded with user shopping cart information. Passing small cookie files between the server and user computers was a much more efficient way of accessing user shopping cart data when needed.

Another use of this type of file was in Unix’s “fortune” program, which presented the user with a random quote, joke, or poem—like a virtual fortune cookie. The files that stored these messages were “magic cookie” files.

Some have also compared internet cookies to the story of Hansel and Gretel, who left a trail of bread crumbs behind them to mark their path through the forest. In the same way, internet cookies mark the trail of a user’s browsing history on a website.

Sources

Create a Pro Website. “What Are Cookies? And How They Work | Explained for Beginners!” August 31, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdVPflECed8.

“How Google Uses Cookies.” Google Privacy & Terms. https://policies.google.com/technologies/cookies?hl=en-US.

“HTTP Cookies.” Wikipedia, April 12, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTTP_cookie.

“What Are Cookies?” Cookie Controller. https://cookiecontroller.com/what-are-cookies/.

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