Are website cookies dangerous?


What is a cookie?

Simply put, a cookie is a small piece of data in the form of a text file sent from the website you are visiting to your browser (Chrome, Safari, Firefox et al.) The process of saving this text file is referred to as setting a cookie.

It’s more interesting to explore the reason behind why the website wants to save this small file onto your computer. Let's say you are logged in to a website like Facebook. To save you the hassle of having to login each time you visit facebook, a cookie is set. You could be shopping for the latest special - Black Friday anyone? - and get interrupted. A cookie is used to remember what you have looked at and what is in your online trolley or cart. Currently it’s vogue to have a dark theme option on some websites. In order to remember whether you prefer light or dark, you guessed it, a cookie is set.

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History of cookies

In June 1994, Louis Montulli invented the concept of the http cookie (to give it its full name) whilst working at Netscape. The original intention for the cookie was mostly benign. It was designed to store the state of someone’s shopping experience so they could pick up from where they left off.

Types of internet cookies

As the Web evolved and grew, third-party cookies evolved and became more wide-spread in their use. These are set by websites other than the one you are visiting. They can show up in banner ads. Some third-party cookies are useful such as one YouTube might set in order to show a video embedded into a webpage that you're visiting.

Advertisers wanted a way to track what people did across different websites so they could better target their advertising efforts and cookie abuse was born and with it concerns around privacy. Advertisers started setting cookies from different sites to track user habits, browsing behaviour and purchasing preferences.

Cookies should be deleted by your browser when you close it. These are known as session cookies. There are also cookies that stick around forever, although the law in some places stipulates for how long. These are known as persistent cookies.

What’s in a cookie?

As mentioned above, a cookie is a small text file and it usually contains the name of the website from where it comes as well as how long it must live and some other information relevant to the website. According to Google, it uses cookies to remember safe search preferences, to make the ads you see more relevant to you, to help you sign up for things like Gmail, to protect your data or to remember your ad settings.

The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.
—Robert H. Schuller

Why do websites have cookie warnings?

In early 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation went into effect. A broad effort by the European Union to regulate and offer protection on how people’s data is collected and used. In order to be compliant with GDPR, websites have to explicitly say what cookies they are setting, what information they are collecting and offer the opportunity to not have them set.

Should I accept cookies?

Although the cookie popups can be annoying, we advise that it’s better to accept them. Blocking cookies can cause the website to break and not work the way it is intended. The next statement is a bit controversial but we believe, given the widespread abuse of tracking cookies, that it is far more practical and useful to install add-ons or extensions to your browser that block things like the advertising and tracking cookies.

Cookies started out with good intentions and can be used for practical purposes that ensure a pleasant web surfing and browsing experience. However, like many things, they have been twisted and can be used for dubious purposes. You could say cookies are both good for you and bad for you. So it’s best to practice savvy browsing by installing add-ons or extensions that can limit the potential for cookie abuse and keep your web habits private, where they belong.

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