Overview of Cookies

Cookies are small bits of textual information that a Web server sends to a browser and that the browser returns unchanged when visiting the same Web site or domain later. By having the server read information it sent the client previously, the site can provide visitors with a number of conveniences:

  • Identifying a user during an e-commerce session. Many on-line stores use a “shopping cart” metaphor in which the user selects an item, adds it to his shopping cart, then continues shopping. Since the HTTP connection is closed after each page is sent, when the user selects a new item for his cart, how does the store know that he is the same user that put the previous item in his cart? Cookies are a good way of accomplishing this. In fact, this is so useful that servlets have an API specifically for this, and servlet authors don’t need to manipulate cookies directly to make use of it. This is discussed in the tutorial section on Session Tracking.
  • Avoiding username and password. Many large sites require you to register in order to use their services, but it is inconvenient to remember the username and password. Cookies are a good alternative for low-security sites. When a user registers, a cookie is sent with a unique user ID. When the client reconnects at a later date, the user ID is returned, the server looks it up, determines it belongs to a registered user, and doesn’t require an explicit username and password.
  • Customizing a site. Many “portal” sites let you customize the look of the main page. They use cookies to remember what you wanted, so that you get that result initially next time. I’ll give an example like this later in this section of the tutorial.
  • Focusing advertising. The search engines charge their customers much more for displaying “directed” ads than “random” ads. That is, if you do a search on “Java Servlets”, a search site can charge much more for an ad for a servlet development environment than an ad for an on-line travel agent. On the other hand, if the search had been “Bali Hotels”, the situation would be reversed. The problem is that they have to show a random ad when you first arrive and haven’t yet performed a search, as well as when you search on something that doesn’t match any ad categories. Cookies let them remember “Oh, that’s the person who was searching for such and such previously” and display an appropriate (read “high priced”) ad instead of a random (read “cheap”) one.

Now, providing convenience to the user and added value to the site owner is the purpose behind cookies. And despite much misinformation, cookies are not a serious security threat. Cookies are never interpreted or executed in any way, and thus can’t be used to insert viruses or attack your system in any way. Furthermore, since browsers generally only accept 20 cookies per site and 300 cookies total, and each cookie is limited to 4KB, cookies cannot be used to fill up someone’s disk or launch other denial of service attacks. However, even though they don’t present a serious security threat, they can preseent a significant threat to privacy. First, some people don’t like the fact that search engines can remember that they’re the person that usually does searches on such and such a topic. For example, they might search for job openings or health data, and don’t want some banner ad tipping off their coworkers next time they do a search. Even worse, two search engines could share data on a user by both loading small images off a third party site, where that third party uses cookies and shares the data with both search engines. (Netscape, however, provides a nice feature that lets you refuse cookies from sites other than that to which you connected, but without disabling cookies altogether.) This trick can even be exploited via email if you use an HTML-enabled email reader that “supports” cookies, as Outlook Express does. Thus, people could send you email that loads images, attach cookies to those images, then later identify you (email address and all) when you went to their site.Or, a site that ought to have much higher security standards might let users skip user name and passwords via cookies. For example, some of the big on-line bookstores use cookies to remember users, and let you order without reentering much of your personal information. However, they don’t actually display the full credit card number, and only let you send books to an address that was entered when you did enter the credit card in full or use the username and password. As a result, someone using the person’s computer (or stealing their cookie file) could do no more harm than sending a big book order to the credit card owner’s address, where it could be refused. However, smaller companies might not be so careful, and access to someone’s computer or cookie file could result in loss of valuable personal information. Even worse, incompetent sites might embed credit card or other sensitive information directly in the cookies themselves, rather than using innocuous identifiers which are only linked to real users on the server.

The point of all this is twofold. First, due to real and perceived privacy problems, some users turn off cookies. So, even when you use cookies to give added value to a site, your site shouldn’t depend on them. Second, as the author of servlets that use cookies, you should be careful not to trust cookies for particularly sensitive information, since this would open the user up to risks if somebody accessed their computer or cookie files.

2 thoughts on “Overview of Cookies

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