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How Internet Cookies Work

How does cookie data move?
When you type a URL into a web browser, a web server might look in your cookie file.
When you type a URL into a web browser, a web server might look in your cookie file.

As you saw in the previous section, cookie data is simply name-value pairs stored on your hard disk by a Web site. That is all cookie data is. The Web site stores the data, and later it receives it back. A Web site can only receive the data it has stored on your machine. It cannot look at any other cookie, nor anything else on your machine.

The data moves in the following manner:

  • If you type the URL of a Web site into your browser, your browser sends a request to the Web site for the page (see How Web Servers Work for a discussion). For example, if you type the URL into your browser, your browser will contact Amazon's server and request its home page.
  • When the browser does this, it will look on your machine for a cookie file that Amazon has set. If it finds an Amazon cookie file, your browser will send all of the name-value pairs in the file to Amazon's server along with the URL. If it finds no cookie file, it will send no cookie data.
  • Amazon's Web server receives the cookie data and the request for a page. If name-value pairs are received, Amazon can use them.
  • If no name-value pairs are received, Amazon knows that you have not visited before. The server creates a new ID for you in Amazon's database and then sends name-value pairs to your machine in the header for the Web page it sends. Your machine stores the name-value pairs on your hard disk.
  • The Web server can change name-value pairs or add new pairs whenever you visit the site and request a page.

There are other pieces of information that the server can send with the name-value pair. One of these is an expiration date. Another is a path (so that the site can associate different cookie values with different parts of the site).

You have control over this process. You can set an option in your browser so that the browser informs you every time a site sends name-value pairs to you. You can then accept or deny the values.

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