A Short History of Cookies (not those ones)

Adam Shilling
4 min readDec 8, 2020

It may seem hard to believe but it wasn’t that long ago where we actually had to memorize websites and our own personal information, or at the very least bookmark them (do people still bookmark?). But ever since the creation and wide-spread adoption of cookies, we don’t even have to do that anymore — thanks internet! But despite these obvious pluses, there has been a fairly strong backlash towards cookies over the past few years — from predatory advertising tactics to Europe’s famous/infamous GDPR laws. In this article we’ll travel into the oven and discover what cookies are and why they’re on the verge of replacing their tastier namesakes.

In England we call them Internet Biscuits

What is an Internet Cookie?

A cookie is a piece of data stored as a text string on your computer by the web browser when you view a website. Your browser will then return the cookie whenever it is referenced, thus making it possible to identify a particular user across the web. They are most commonly used for things like online shopping as they enable retailers to keep track of your shopping cart and login information.

Also known as HTTP Cookies, Web Cookies and Browser Cookies — there are a few different types, some of the most interesting/nefarious being:

Session Cookies (or temporary cookies)

These are only active while you are currently on a website and are deleted as soon as the browser is closed. These are the ones most used for things like shopping carts and viewcounts .

Permanent Cookies (or persistent cookies)

These are not deleted once you close the browser, are are not deleted at all — until you explicitly do so. These are usually the cookies that remember your login information and passwords.

Third-party Cookies

These are the cookies installed by third-parties which track your browsing history and spending habits with an aim to improve advertising and make more money for businesses. They are the ones which you never asked for and don’t necessarily provide you with any benefits.

Flash Cookies

These are the truly dodgy ones. Much like the cookies above, they track information about web browsing behavior. Unlike the cookies above, these are stored inside a separate Adobe Flash plugin and are very difficult to delete. In fact, most people are unaware of those cookies and don’t realize that they are often not deleted even after pressing the ‘delete all cookies’ button.

Does it have anything to do with a cookie cookie?

Cookies were created in 1994 by the web browser developer Lou Montulli while he was working on what would eventually become the Netscape browser as he wanted to check whether visitors had already visited the site. They were named cookies after the concept of ‘magic cookies’. In early computing parlance, this was something with an embedded message — much like a fortune cookie has. So cookies really are connected to each other after all!

Why are they getting such negative press recently?

They may have entered the public consciousness in a wide-way fairly recently but the privacy problems with cookies has been known almost since their creation. The US Federal Trade Commission actually discusses them in two separate hearings as far back as 1996 and 1997 and they were receiving plenty of media attention all this time. Clearly, nearly 25 years later, little has changed but it does seem like the tide has shifted against them recently.

Montulli actually designed cookies to prevent internet tracking as the idea was that only the original website could set and receive the cookie. However, they did not envision the eventual ease and scale that websites would be able to set their own cookies on other websites. Advertisers quickly discovered that if you can track users across the web and discover their buying habits or purchases they are considering — you can better target them. DoubleClick was one of the first to truly take advantage of this and so was no surprise it was acquired by Google in 2007 for more than $3 billion. Since then, the power of cookies has only increased, with Facebook able to track users across most of the internet due to it’s prevalent like button.

What fortune does the cookie suggest?

After several decades of unfettered use and in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russian election interference, the wheels have been put into motion to prevent misuse. The most well-known example of this being Europe’s GDPR laws. Amongst other things, these laws require websites to require consent before sending and tracking cookies. This certainly helps attract attention but the fact remains that the vast majority of people do not realize what they are potentially giving up when they click the accept button to trade it for mild convenience.

There is no denying cookies are supremely useful and can be a good and healthy part of the internet eco-system we all inhabit but as long as their information is opaque and we have no individual access to our own information profiles — cookies are most-likely just as bad for you as their sugar-filled namesakes.