Why Are Cookies Called 'Cookies' on Your Computer?

Why Are Cookies Called 'Cookies' on Your Computer?

Jeff Greer
March 8, 2021

Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell, Lou Montulli. Every aforementioned name probably rings a bell, except one. You almost certainly haven’t heard of Montulli, a computer programmer in the World-Wide Web Hall of Fame (yes, that’s a real thing) for his 1990s work at Netscape, but he’s the reason why cookies are called “cookies” on your computer.

The term “cookie” refers to data passed between a web browser and server meant to help websites remember your activities. It’s the programming spin on the fortune cookie, which carries a message inside.

What are cookies on your computer?

In building out Netscape, the once-popular web browser, Montulli wanted to create small data carriers for websites to retain information from a user’s activities on their previous visit. For example, think of a site remembering the items a user placed in their shopping cart. The website works in conjunction with your internet browser to form a memory of your last visit.

Those small data carriers: Why are they called “cookies”? Montulli made the spinoff from the programming phrase “magic cookie,” a popular term for users of the Unix computer operating system. The name “magic cookie” is itself a play on the fortune cookie.

Montulli created cookies as an e-commerce mechanism for MCI, the former telecommunications company. When a website asks if you agree to allow cookies to be stored on your browser, this allows the website to remember when you visit again for a potentially more personalized experience. Companies also rely on this data to pursue customers and find potential for growth.

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Are cookies a security risk?

There can be dangers and privacy concerns with cookies, a hot topic amid our ever-increasing internet use.

These data nuggets—like which car models you clicked on a dealership’s website or the shoes you put in the shopping cart for your sibling’s birthday gift—can include personal information used on websites, such as logins, passwords, even credit card or Social Security numbers. Think about how browsers like Google Chrome or Internet Explorer offer auto-fill drop-down options every time you fill out an online form.

How do websites know that information about you? Cookies.

Many companies secure their websites and encrypt cookies, making the hijacking of that information difficult and retaining the trust inherent in a transaction between a customer and a business. But cyberhacking is a serious threat that can result in access to private user information. It’s for that reason that users may want to occasionally delete cookies from their browsers. The minor inconvenience of retyping your credit card number or password might be worth the peace of mind that hackers won’t find as much information about you if they illegally access sites you frequent or violate your own computer’s protective net.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.