What are cookies?

Computer cookies are text files

The literature on cookies is fragmented. For example, AboutCookies.org (2012) is an official website which is endorsed by the Information Commissioner’s Office (UK) that recognises three types of cookies: permanent (persistent or stored) cookies, session (or transient) cookies and flash (Local Shared Object) cookies (Pinsent Masons no date: online). Whereas, other sources will argue that there are four types of cookies: session cookies, performance cookies, functionality cookies and targeting cookies (Rouse 2005: online).

The technology behind cookies is well understood. That is to say, cookies are comprised of text files which are sent from a Web server to a user’s browser (Peng 2000:150). The text within cookies can be altered to allow cookies to store unique information. For this reason, cookies can be used to identify a specific computer. Cookies cannot identify a particular person because several people might share the same computer.

However, researchers have identified other types of, and terms for, cookies:

HTTP cookies
HTTP cookies are the collective term which refers to the common types of cookies (i.e. session, performance, functionality and targeting cookies).
Flash cookies
Flash cookies, or Local Shared Objects, are used by websites that run Adobe Flash.
First part cookies
A first party cookie is a term used to identify a relationship a user has with a specific website.
Third party cookies
A third party cookie is a term used to identify a relationship a user has with a website they have not directly visited.

BBC (2012) concludes that cookies can only be accessed and amended by the server who sent it/them (online: no date).

Without cookies certain processes would become difficult to carry out. For example, an electronic commerce (e-commerce) website can allow one user to have several items in their basket and pay for these items in one process. Thus, cookies are useful for certain processes online.

However, these text files are not broken down, line by line to the end user and are often encoded (Pierson 2011:34; Wills & Zeljkovic 2011:53). Therefore, the exact extent to which cookies are used for in a search remains unknown. Specifically, cookies are used within a search, but their use of that search is not precisely known. As well as other methods of data collection (e.g. encoding of a Web address), cookies are used to track users (Wills & Zeljkovic 2011:53).

Search engines analyse user interactions just as a webmaster, for instance, would monitor and analyse the interactions of a client’s website (Aljifri and Navarro 2004:379). Unlike standard websites, search engines can easily record a person’s searches because they are providing a service (Aljifri and Navarro 2004:379).


  1. AboutCookies.org (2012) Cookies: Frequently Asked Questions. [Online] [Accessed on 21st December 2012] http://www.aboutcookies.org/Default.aspx?page=5
  2. Aljifri, H. Navarro, D, S. (2004) Search engines and privacy. Computers & Security. 23 (5) pp. 379 – 388.
  3. BBC. (2012) About cookies. [Online] [Accessed on 21st December 2012] http://www.bbc.co.uk/privacy/cookies/about/?source_url=/privacy/bbc-cookies-policy.shtml
  4. Peng, W. (2000) HTTP cookies – a promising technology. Online Information Review. 24(2) pp. 150 – 153
  5. Rouse, M. (2005) Transient cookie (session cookie). [Online] [Accessed on 21st December 2012] http://searchsoa.techtarget.com/definition/transient-cookie
  6. Wills, C, E. Zeljkovic, M. (2011) A personalized approach to web privacy: awareness, attitudes and action. Information Management & Computer Security, 19(1) pp.53 – 73

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