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A cookie, also known as an HTTP cookie, web cookie, or browser cookie, is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored in a user's web browser while the user is browsing that website. Every time the user loads the website, the browser sends the cookie back to the server to notify the website of the user's previous activity. Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items in a shopping cart) or to record the user's browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited by the user as far back as months or years ago).
Although cookies cannot carry viruses, and cannot install malware on the host computer, tracking cookies and especially third-party tracking cookies are commonly used as ways to compile long-term records of individuals' browsing histories—a potential privacy concern that prompted European and US law makers to take action in 2011.
Cookies can also store passwords and forms a user has previously entered, such as a credit card number or an address. When a user accesses a website with a cookie function for the first time, a cookie is sent from server to the browser and stored with the browser in the local computer. Later when that user goes back to the same website, the website will recognize the user because of the stored cookie with the user's information.
Cookies may be used to maintain data related to the user during navigation, possibly across multiple visits. Cookies were introduced to provide a way to implement a "shopping cart" (or "shopping basket"), a virtual device into which users can store items they want to purchase as they navigate throughout the site.
Shopping basket applications today usually store the list of basket contents in a database on the server side, rather than storing basket items in the cookie itself. A web server typically sends a cookie containing a unique session identifier. The web browser will send back that session identifier with each subsequent request and shopping basket items are stored associated with a unique session identifier.
Cookies provide a quick and convenient means of client/server interaction. One of the advantages of cookies lies in the fact that they store the user information locally while identifying users simply based on cookie matching. The server's storage and retrieval load is greatly reduced. As a matter of fact, the possibility of applications is endless - any time personal data need to be saved they can be saved as a cookie (Kington, 1997).
Cookies may be used to remember the information about the user who has visited a website in order to show relevant content in the future. For example a web server might send a cookie containing the username last used to log into a website so that it may be filled in for future visits.
Tracking cookies may be used to track internet users' web browsing. This can also be done in part by using the IP address of the computer requesting the page or the referrer field of the HTTP request header, but cookies allow for greater precision. This can be demonstrated as follows:
By analyzing the log file collected in the process, it is then possible to find out which pages the user has visited, in what sequence, and for how long.
For a more indepth explanation of cookies, please visit the Wikipedia Website!