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A cookie is data created by an internet server while browsing a website that is sent to a web browser. The browser stores the information in a text file, and re-sends that information to the server each time the browser accesses the server. The main purpose of a cookie is to help the server identify the browser. Websites may use cookies to identify and track users, update user preferences, or to save users previously entered information; such as names, addresses, or passwords.

The U.S. government has set strict rules on setting cookies in 2000 after it found that the White House Drug Policy Office used cookies to track users viewing its online anti-drug advertising. In 2002 and 2005, the CIA and NSA were found leaving persistent cookies on computers that had visited its website. After being informed, the NSA immediately disabled the cookies. More suits between corporations and web-monitoring corporations followed. The suits typically focused on whether “web-monitoring services should include cookie use ” or whether the web-monitoring corporations can collect personally identifiable information through the use of cookies under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

[Last updated in February of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]