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HTTP cookie


An HTTP cookie (also called web cookie, Internet cookie, browser cookie, or simply cookie) is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored on the user's computer by the user's web browser while the user is browsing. Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items added in the shopping cart in an online store) or to record the user's browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited in the past). They can also be used to remember arbitrary pieces of information that the user previously entered into form fields such as names, addresses, passwords, and credit card numbers.

The introduction of cookies was not widely known to the public at the time. In particular, cookies were accepted by default, and users were not notified of their presence. The general public learned about cookies after the Financial Times published an article about them on February 12, 1996. In the same year, cookies received a lot of media attention, especially because of potential privacy implications. Cookies were discussed in two U.S. Federal Trade Commission hearings in 1996 and 1997.

A session cookie, also known as an in-memory cookie, transient cookie or non-persistent cookie, exists only in temporary memory while the user navigates the website. Web browsers normally delete session cookies when the user closes the browser. Unlike other cookies, session cookies do not have an expiration date assigned to them, which is how the browser knows to treat them as session cookies.

For this reason, persistent cookies are sometimes referred to as tracking cookies because they can be used by advertisers to record information about a user's web browsing habits over an extended period of time. However, they are also used for "legitimate" reasons (such as keeping users logged into their accounts on websites, to avoid re-entering login credentials at every visit).

Supercookies can be a potential security concern and are therefore often blocked by web browsers. If unblocked by the browser, an attacker in control of a malicious website could set a supercookie and potentially disrupt or impersonate legitimate user requests to another website that shares the same top-level domain or public suffix as the malicious website. For example, a supercookie with an origin of .com, could maliciously affect a request made to example.com, even if the cookie did not originate from example.com. This can be used to fake logins or change user information.

Cookies were originally introduced to provide a way for users to record items they want to purchase as they navigate throughout a website (a virtual "shopping cart" or "shopping basket"). Today, however, the contents of a user's shopping cart are usually stored in a database on the server, rather than in a cookie on the client. To keep track of which user is assigned to which shopping cart, the server sends a cookie to the client that contains a unique session identifier (typically, a long string of random letters and numbers). Because cookies are sent to the server with every request the client makes, that session identifier will be sent back to the server every time the user visits a new page on the website, which lets the server know which shopping cart to display to the user.

In addition to a name and value, cookies can also have one or more attributes. Browsers do not include cookie attributes in requests to the server´they only send the cookie's name and value. Cookie attributes are used by browsers to determine when to delete a cookie, block a cookie or whether to send a cookie to the server.

The Secure attribute is meant to keep cookie communication limited to encrypted transmission, directing browsers to use cookies only via secure/encrypted connections. However, if a web server sets a cookie with a secure attribute from a non-secure connection, the cookie can still be intercepted when it is sent to the user by man-in-the-middle attacks. Therefore, for maximum security, cookies with the Secure attribute should only be set over a secure connection.

Most websites use cookies as the only identifiers for user sessions, because other methods of identifying web users have limitations and vulnerabilities. If a website uses cookies as session identifiers, attackers can impersonate users' requests by stealing a full set of victims' cookies. From the web server's point of view, a request from an attacker then has the same authentication as the victim's requests; thus the request is performed on behalf of the victim's session.