How To Explain Cookies To A Five-year-old

Stefano Maruzzi, VP EMEA, GoDaddy

“There are two kinds of cookie in this world. One is round, with chunks of chocolate inside, and tastes great with a cup of warm milk or hot chocolate. The other kind of cookie has no shape, is invisible to the eye, and remembers your favourite flavours but doesn’t actually taste of anything itself. We call this an Internet Cookie.

“Think about how you want your toys to be arranged just the way you like after somebody else plays with them – that’s what an Internet cookie does for you when you return to your favourite website. It can remember you, what you like, and sometimes even what your mum bought online to save her time, it’s almost like writing down a list for you. This means your favourite cartoon website can come up right away on the screen, or the Toys ‘R’ Us items you put in your online shopping basket are still in there ready for your mum to buy for your birthday.”

Mark Hall, public sector director at Redcentric

“Imagine writing down everything you do in your diary. The football match at Manchester United you went to, the burger you had at McDonalds, the video game you bought at Toys-R-Us.

“Now imagine if next time you went to the footie, or went for some Chicken McNuggets, or went to the toy store, they remembered you from last time and gave you a really nice welcome: Man Utd show you to your seat and get you a programme (because they know you like programmes, you always buy one); McDonalds offers you barbecue sauce with your nuggets (because they know it’s your favourite); and Toys-R-Us take you straight to the video section (because that’s the section you always visit first) but also suggest you take a look at bikes too (because you’re thinking about choosing your birthday present).

“But how did Man Utd, McDonalds and Toys-R-Us know this about you? Because they had seen the bits of your diary that talked about them (and they only saw their own information, no-one else’s) and using what they’d learnt they were able to make your next visit that much more personal, enjoyable and useful.”

Fraser Kyne, director of products at Bromium

“Sometimes when you go to a play centre you’ll get a sticker with your name on. It might also say where you come from, what games you like to play, or more importantly what food you’re allergic to. If you keep that sticker for next time you visit it saves time and gets you on the slides faster.”

Javvad Malik, security advocate at AlienVault

“In the world of computers, a cookie is not as crumbly as it sounds. A computer cookie is something which you pick up from nearly every website that you visit. Cookies are small text files that websites place on your computer in order to collect information about you. The cookie tracks the patterns of the way you use the website and then sends it back to the website owner so that they can better understand your needs and provide content especially for you. For example, if you search for “flowers” on Google, you may start getting adverts popping up for florists near you. That is because the cookie that Google put on your computer has remembered what you searched for.

“However, a law was put into place in 2011 which means that each website you visit has to ask for your permission before giving you a cookie. If you say no, the website will still work but perhaps not as well. There are certain tools which you can use to delete all the cookies that have been stored on your computer, because some people worry that their computers will get too fat and won’t work properly.”

Mark James, security specialist at IT Security Firm ESET

“A cookie is like a name badge and a video camera all built into one. When you visit a website a cookie can be created and stored onto your computer that may contain information on where you visited on the web and who you are. Just like a name badge websites can see this information about you and also see what websites you may have visited recently. Some cookies will store your username, passwords, where you live or even your game information if playing games on your computer but they can also store information about what websites you have been to recently. Cookies are not malware or large and will not slow your computer down, but they can be used by bad people to see where you have been so you do need to get the help of an adult to have them removed regularly.”

Conrad Bennett, VP technical services, Webtrends

“Being remembered by people is a good thing. From the ice-cream man who remembers your favourite ice lolly, to the dinner lady remembering that you don’t like peas. People who remember your name, your likes and dislikes and other relevant details about you are seen as providing a better, friendlier, more personal service.”

Steve Hickey, CEO of Cookie Reports

“A Cookie is a simple small computer file that contain letters and numbers and each website you visit stores cookie on your computer, tablet or mobile phone. Cookie are not good or bad and can do no harm to your system.

“The website owner uses the stored letters and numbers in the file for many reasons and examples include setting your language, making the website easier to use, helping you shop online or to show you adverts and information that it thinks you would like to see.

“The European Union has the best interests of its citizens at heart and so it has decided that website owners should tell all website visitors about the Cookies that they are placing on your computer. The website should do this in a clear and easily understood way.

“Website owners have struggled to do this properly, for many reasons, but it’s actually quite easy and they’ve had over four years to try – so they should be doing this already! Here at Cookie Report, we do all the work for the website owner and it costs less than the price of a cup of hot chocolate each day, so they have no excuse really!”

Jonathan French, security analyst at AppRiver

“An HTTP Cookie is used by websites to keep track of user data. There are all different kinds of HTTP Cookies just like there are all different kinds of real cookies. If real cookies acted like HTTP Cookies, you could maybe have a chocolate chip cookie that kept track of places you’ve walked to. Or a peanut butter cookie that kept track of items you put in your shopping cart at the store. Even an oatmeal cookie that only existed while you were visiting a friend’s house. HTTP Cookies are designed to keep track of this type of information while you are online visiting and interacting with websites.

Adam Winn, senior product manager, OPSWAT

“A cookie starts out like a name tag. It helps a website know who you are so it can make your visit better. Sounds good, right? But imagine if instead of just writing down your name, your teacher also wrote everything you did for a whole day, even things like picking your nose when you thought no one was watching! And then the teacher shared that list with all the other teachers. That doesn’t sound very good, does it? Website cookies are the same; they keep track of what websites you visit and what you do in each website. We didn’t always know when they were watching, or what was done with the ‘list’ they kept. Luckily the rules were recently changed, so UK websites have to let you know when they are using cookies!”

Ian Ward, web manager at Timico

“Cookies are small pieces of information that websites leave on your computer, usually to help them remember who you are. Sometimes they only stay for as long as you are using your browser, but others need to stay for weeks or even years. They are very useful and without them websites wouldn’t be able to know important things like what toys you have put in your shopping basket or which episode of Peppa Pig you need to watch next. They are also used to help decide what adverts you might want to see and for this reason people sometimes don’t like cookies, but if we were to get rid of them most websites would simply stop working.”

How much do you know about Internet security? Try our quiz!

Duncan Macrae

Duncan MacRae is former editor and now a contributor to TechWeekEurope. He previously edited Computer Business Review's print/digital magazines and CBR Online, as well as Arabian Computer News in the UAE.

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