The Difference Between Cookies and Sessions

Every time you stop by IKEA’s website to check on news and discounts, the website will show you the products you’ve been window-shopping the last time you’ve been around. You don’t even have to be a Family member or add any products to your shopping bag.

Somehow, IKEA remembers precisely what you’re interested in. 

This super-convenient superpower is enabled by something called a web cookie

These days, nearly every website you visit stores cookies on your computer and then uses them to show you personalized content. In a similar fashion, but with a few key differences, sessions also help websites store and remember important information about their visitors. 

Today, we will talk about how cookies and sessions work and what makes them different, but we’ll also touch on a few adjacent subjects. Here’s more about internet tracking, compromised user privacy in the name of personalization, and also – what is a proxy? 

How the internet works 

In 2020, 97% of marketers witnessed a rise in business outcomes due to personalization. 

According to multiple studies, most of us don’t mind sharing personal information in return for offers that suit our personal interests. We don’t want to waste any time searching for our favorite music on YouTube. We expect it to be the first thing we see when we log in. 

It’s the same with every online-based product and service. Today’s internet is custom-tailored to our individual needs, and we like it that way. The only problem is that before it can offer personalized content, the internet must know who we are, what we do, and what we like.

Because of this, we’re constantly being tracked. 

Websites and internet browsers 

Internet tracking, also known as website tracking and browser tracking, is nothing unorthodox or illegal. It happens every time you use the internet and interact with web pages. While browsing, everything you do leaves a digital footprint of your online activities and whereabouts. 

Here’s how that works:

A website starts monitoring your activity as soon as you land on the first page. Everything you click on, every new page you visit, and every link you follow are being tracked as another interaction between you and that website. The sum of this data comprises your website user ID. 

For each of these interactions, your internet browser communicates with the website, leaving a digital trail in the form of code. Whenever you click on a link, the browser sends an HTTP request to the server – a middleman between the browser and the website. 

The server passES that message along to the client – a technical term for a website – and waits for the answer. The website sends the answer to the server, and the server forwards an HTTP response to the browser, which shows you a rendered web page on your screen. 

All this information is kept in the form of cookies and sessions

How cookies work 

A significant percentage of modern websites track every interaction between the user and the website. Because the sum of these interactions reveals your identity as a user, websites store them for later use. They do so by packing all this information in a 4KB tracking cookie. 

Tracking cookies are then stored on the user’s computer via the internet browser. 

That’s how IKEA knows what you’ve been looking at the last time you visited their online store. 

How sessions work

Sessions collect and store interactions between the user and the website as well, but not in the same way as cookies. Sessions are temporary – they monitor your user activity from the moment you enter the website until the moment you turn it off. At this point, all data is deleted.

Without sessions, websites’ user experiences would be very primitive. 

When you enter a website that requires login information, sessions are responsible for passing that data on to every next page you visit within that website. Without them, you’d need to log in again every time you open another page. Unlike cookies, sessions are about functionality.

However, that’s not the only difference between them. 

Differences between cookies and sessions 

While cookies are saved on your computer, sessions are stored on a server. It goes without saying that this affects data safety – cookies are ordinary text files that can be accessed and read by anyone, while sessions are saved in binary or encrypted form and are, therefore, more secure.

Sessions use cookies as storage, but only temporarily. While cookies remain on your computer until they expire or you manually delete them, sessions are deleted the moment you exit the website (or any other internet application) or turn off your computer – whatever comes first. 

Sessions are much larger data files than cookies – up to 128MB to 4KB. 

Security-wise, there’s another vital difference between cookies and sessions. If you don’t like being tracked, most internet browsers and websites will allow you to disable cookies. However, sessions are fully automated, and you don’t have any say in how they record your information. 

Conclusion

What does this mean in terms of your security on the internet? If you don’t care for personalized content, you can use a proxy. Your browser’s incognito mode is another option, but bear in mind that it doesn’t hide your information from internet service providers. There’s also this:

“Your activity might still be visible to websites you visit.” 

You can read this every time you go incognito using Google Chrome. 

What is a proxy, then? The only way to keep some privacy while browsing is by using a proxy, which hides your IP address and puts an additional layer between you and the website. Proxies are a complex technology with many possible applications, including data scraping – but that’s a whole other topic.

We had a different goal for today, and we’ve hopefully helped you get there. Now that you know the difference between tracking cookies and sessions, you should be able to make safer browsing decisions, find some privacy on the web, and, if need be, choose the right proxy for your needs.