Website cookies: Annoying or useful?

Unfortunately, website cookies are not a yummy treat – although the fact that they only exist in the virtual world means that at least they don’t contain calories! When the pair of shoes you were admiring weeks ago suddenly appears in ads on every website you visit or online shopping sites know your name, website cookies are behind it.
Three chocolate chip cookies stacked against a white background
Website cookies may not be delicious – but they can be useful!
But are cookies safe? mail.com answers all your questions.

What are website cookies?

In the context of the internet, a “cookie” is a tiny text file that is automatically saved to your computer or mobile device when you visit a website. This lets web servers store information about your browsing activity – so they can keep track of items you place in an online shopping cart, for instance. As such, cookies are a standard feature of the modern computing landscape. It is possible to block them, but in some cases they are essential to the proper functioning of a website.

There are several theories floating around about where the name “cookie” comes from. Our favorite: It was derived from the term “magic cookies,” which was what data packets were called in old Unix systems, and from the idea of a fortune cookie, which is of course also a small morsel with information on the inside.

What do website cookies do?

Cookies contain information about a user’s browsing activities that can be used again later by internet sites. This includes information like:
  • Name of the website you visited or the server that hosts it
  • Country and/or language settings   
  • Length of a website visit
Once they have been saved by your internet browser, cookies are sent to the server of the website operator when you visit that website. For example, cookies let the website know about your preferred settings for the zoom, font size and language, so every time you go back to the website, it will appear the way you like it. Or if you visit an online shop and leave items in your shopping cart when you click to another site, cookies enable your choices to still be there when you return later. And if you fill in an online contact form, they make it possible for the website to remember your address and phone number so you don’t have to type them in again.

Website cookies also mean that you can be recognized based on your unique behavior profile on the world wide web. So you can be shown ads based on your recent website use, like search inquires.

Why do I have to accept cookies?

In May 2018, the European Union enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a sweeping data privacy law. One aim of the GDPR is to make sure users are aware of the data that companies collect about them and give them a chance to consent – or not – to how this data is used and shared. And since, as we explained above, cookies contain data about internet browsing behavior, companies are required to get users’ permission to use them. As we all know, the internet is global, so you will still get pop-ups asking your permission to use cookies even if you don’t live in Europe. And as privacy regulations are becoming more widespread across the globe, it’s no wonder that such consent requests are found on almost all websites today.

That said, you are not required to accept any cookies. Some are essential to the technical functioning of a website, however, so you won’t be able to use that site if you refuse to consent to the necessary cookies, or the functionality will be limited.

Are website cookies safe?

In almost all cases, cookies are harmless. They do not contain malware or viruses. When they are created, they don’t contain any personal data like your date of birth or address, and they don't scan your computer to find out your personal information. However, they can contain personal data that you provide, e.g. information you input on a website form. And if you don’t like the idea of your browsing activity being tracked, you can do the following:
  1. Delete cookies regularly. This is done in your internet browser. In your browser settings, you can also set up automatic deletion of cookies at regular intervals.
  2. Don’t give permission for third-party cookies. This can also be done in your browser settings and prevents your activity from being tracked across multiple websites.
  3. Browse in private mode. This is also an option offered by many web browsers. Among other things, it means no cookies and no browsing history are saved.
We hope this post answered all your questions about website cookies! We look forward to your feedback below!

Images: 1&1/iStock
 

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