Adware Report: Are Cookies "Spyware"?

A number of readers and vendors have emailed us asking if cookies are really spyware. To get to the bottom of this, we spent some time talking with vendors and industry experts.

What Is A Cookie?

This excellent definition comes from GetNetWise.

A cookie is a piece of information sent by a Web server to a user's browser. Cookies may include information such as login or registration identification, user preferences, online "shopping cart" information, etc. The browser saves the information, and sends it back to the Web server whenever the browser returns to the Web site. The Web server may use the cookie to customize the display it sends to the user, or it may keep track of the different pages within the site that the user accesses. Browsers may be configured to alert the user when a cookie is being sent, or to refuse to accept cookies. Some sites, however, cannot be accessed unless the browser accepts cookies. (See also "Personally identifiable information")

Some advertisers use cookies to track your surfing habits while on their website, but it's important to note that unlike spyware, cookies can not be used to track your surfing on other websites. Nor do Cookies consume a noticeable amount of bandwidth.

Thus, cookies can't be considered spyware in the regular sense of the term.

Why Does This Matter?

Many vendors count cookies as a way of beefing up the total number of spyware programs they purportedly protect against. It seems harmless enough, but it does make it more difficult to judge how effective one product might be in comparison to another. When vendors begin counting cookies, it may be a sign that their products aren't as strong when it comes to protecting against actual spyware.

If this seems a little complicated for your tastes, don't despair - our updated July review will take cookie calculations into account!

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