What are cookies?

01 July 2015

When you use the internet, cookies are mentioned all the time. But what is a cookie? We explain what they are, how they work and if they’re safe.



What are cookies?

Online cookies are unfortunately not of the edible variety. ‘Cookie’ is geek speak for a small snippet of text that a website places in your browser (the application you use to browse the web, like Safari or Internet Explorer) to track what you do when you visit it.

The original term used by computer programmers was ‘fortune cookie’, because a cookie is designed to ‘read your fortune’ by remembering who you are and some basic information about your browsing history.

You probably have dozens, if not hundreds of cookies lurking behind the scenes on your browser.

For example, if you’ve ever had to type a username and password to gain access to a site, you may have noticed that the site somehow remembered your username. That’s a cookie’s work.

If you’ve indulged in a spot of online shopping, when you return to the site at a later date you’ll notice that it has remembered everything about you, including the personal information you’ve shared and the items you’ve purchased or put into a shopping cart. Cookies are responsible for this, too.

Read our guide to staying safe online.

Are cookies safe?

If a website’s cookies can remember your personal details, you might wonder what stops an unauthorised site from finding them out as well.

Rest assured, cookies are safe for a variety of reasons:

  • They’re only available to the website that creates them
  • Cookies do not give websites access to any information you have not voluntarily given them
  • Cookies cannot pass viruses (harmful programs) to your computer.

Although cookies are stored discreetly on your browser, you can view them and remove them if you wish to.

On the most popular browsers, you can usually do this in your privacy settings. Otherwise you can check out the ‘Help’ section on your menu or do a Google search for something like: “How to remove cookies on Safari”.

Your browser may even give you the option to not accept cookies. This isn’t generally advised, because cookies are designed to personalise your online experience and some sites don’t function properly if cookies are disabled.

While not quite as tasty as regular cookies, online cookies are nothing to worry about. In fact, they tend to make using the internet easier.

You can delete them if you want to, and nothing will go wrong, but many of the sites you visit regularly won’t remember who you are until you remind them.

Want to keep understand even more computer jargon? Read our glossary of common computer terms.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.