One of many annoyances of the internet these days is the dreaded ‘Please accept our cookies’ popup you see on a great number of websites, warning you of the intention of the site you are visiting to give you things called cookies. They sound soo sweet, digestable, and innocent. But how many of us actually know what they are, how they are used, and if they are dangerous or not?
So – what is a cookie and why are they on the internet?
A cookie, in the internet sense, is a wee fragment of data that a website can store in your web browser for a defined period of time. This can be until you close your browser, it can be days or weeks. Once a cookie is stored on the end users browser, that cookie of information is sent to the server with every new page request or interaction with that websites server. Cookies are restricted to only send data back to the domain name that set them. A cookie is unique to each user – they may store the same information, but because they are stored on the end users device, they are unique to that user.
Where they get powerful is that website developers can store data in a cookie that enables them to customise our browsing experience on their website. Typically what this looks like is when a user has logged in to a website a token is stored on a cookie for that user session so that every subsequent request to the server can prove that it is from the logged in user, and the server can customise its response according to your profile and stored settings. This is really useful.
Where this can get risky though, is when you visit websites that use advertising networks. Advertising networks can set cookies on your computer to track what websites you have visited, and your preferences so they can target you with ads for things they think you need. This is seen as predatory, and can give these networks a huge wealth of information about you and your online habits. The more websites an advertising network is used on, the more data they can collect.
While cookies are generally safe to accept, websites in many geographic locations nowadays need to request the users permission before they can store cookies in their website browsers. The lawmakers in these regions pass laws to make this mandatory for sites doing business in these regions so that their people can make informed decisions on what information can follow them around on the internet.
If you visit a website that you know you won’t be logging in to or signing up for, then there is no need to accept the cookies on that site. If you are keen to interact with the site, and have a customised experience, then accepting cookies is quite fine. You can always clear out cookies from your browser at any stage – the process varies depending on what web browser you are using, but you can view the content of any of the cookies, and delete whichever ones you prefer.