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The decision as to when to delete cookies should be based on the security concerns of online activity, the speed of the Internet connection, and what websites are frequently visited. Since browser cookies are meant to speed up the loading of frequently visited web sites, as well as track an individual visitor's use of the site, they have both positive and negative values. Many virus detection programs will find, as a primary source of their function, numerous tracking cookies that have been copied to user computers, and a setting to automatically delete cookies of this type is appropriate. Though cookies are the most harmless types of files detected by virus software, they are also installed without user permission or knowledge and can lead to gaps in security firewalls. In order to enhance the security of your computer, deleting cookies frequently is the best option.
A periodic process to delete cookies from a computer usually will take care of most concerns. Though cookies are designed to speed up access to a website, they primarily benefit the marketing aspects of the website itself and not the visitor. Cookies also take up very little space on a computer hard drive, as they are small text data files, so thousands of them can be stored on a contemporary personal computer without monopolizing space in any noticeable way.
There are several different names for cookies, including the hypertext-transfer protocol cookie (HTTP cookie), web cookie, or browser cookie, but they all are stored as text files and serve similar functions. Their primary and original use, when Internet speed was much slower in decades past, was to track a visitor's activity on a website for marketing and optimization purposes when the visitor returned later. This would enable faster loading of web pages, advertising targeted towards the specific interests of the visitor, and maintained records of shopping cart's data that weren't completed beforehand.
Tracking website traffic also allows for some personalization if a user has filled out a form on the site, where they could then be addressed by name, graphics could be loaded based on individual interests, and more. The major downside to such marketing practices is that cookies are in no way secure files. If they contain sensitive information stored on the website or provided by the visitor, they can easily be read by anyone who knows where they are located or anyone who can capture them while they are being transferred over the Internet.
Cookies are in effect real-time log files of the time, date, and specific activity of a user on a computer as the user interacts with websites. If Internet access is being gained in a public or work environment, it is best to delete cookies after an Internet session has ended to maintain privacy. If a user has never visited a website before, a cookie by default will be created with the first visit.
Though browsers can be set to block the downloading of cookies, many sites claim that they will not operate or load properly if this feature is disabled. In and of themselves, cookies are fairly harmless, but they can open a security loophole for hackers to obtain account information, and they can be a sophisticated storage record of Internet activity. The best practice in maintaining security and privacy is to delete cookies at every opportunity.