If you use the internet, chances are you’ve already been asked if you would like to accept or decline internet cookies. Most people don’t know anything about the information contained in these cookies but are just fed up with seeing the prompt over and over again and clicking on “decline” by reflex. The truth is cookies have been around since 1994 when a programmer named Lou Montulli came up with the idea for Netscape Navigator. The original intention was for cookies to save usernames and passwords so we wouldn’t have to type them in every time we visited a site.
However, cookies have become much more than that. Millions of people use them every day (or, rather, every hour). However, not all cookies work in the same ways. Cookies make websites better by providing information about how you browse the internet. However, they can also follow your online trail and gather information for purposes that may or may not be associated with user experience. Let us learn a few important things about internet cookies .
What are internet cookies?
Internet cookies or HTTP cookies are small text files that are used by a website to store information. They are passed between the server of a website and the users’ web browsers. When you visit a site, it will send a cookie from its server to the browser you are using. The browser then stores the cookie on your device in a cookie file.
Cookies contain a string of characters that is sent to your computer when you visit a website. They allow the website to remember your actions and preferences (such as login, language, font size, and other preferences) Sometimes, they make the website work more efficiently or are used to gather analytical information.
The string of characters in a cookie usually comprises a name, value, and attribute.
A website or a third-party server identifies a cookie using its name. Value is a random alphanumeric character, and it stores data like a unique identifier to identify the user and other information. An attribute consists of characteristics, such as the expiration date, domain, path, and flags.
How do internet cookies work?
When you visit a website for the first time, your web browser sends an access request to the site’s server. The server then generates a unique ID and sends it to the browser along with the cookies. The browser stores the cookies locally on the user device and loads the page.
When you visit the website next time, the server will identify the user using the unique ID of the cookies stored in the browser.
Here is an illustration of how cookies generally work:
What are internet cookies used for?
Cookies are used for many different purposes, including (but not limited to):
- saving user login information to remember them on subsequent visits ;
- identifying the user and what they are doing;
- remembering user preferences, such as language, theme mode, font size, etc;
- understanding how users interact with a website;
- improving user experience, for example by storing information about your cart so the users don’t have to enter it on every page they visit;
- helping to gather statistics about visitors, such as their location or device; and
- helping to gather analytical data, such as pageviews, session durations, and bounce rates.
Cookies are very useful and improve users’ browsing experience. However, they can also be used for intrusive activities by advertisers. They can track where the users shop and what they buy. This lets advertisers gather information about them and show ads based on their interests. You may notice that the same ad keeps reappearing as you move from site to site because the advertiser uses the cookie ID to track the users. They build up a detailed profile of user online habits. This can be harmful to user privacy since it means these companies know a lot about the users without even having to ask them.
What are different types of internet cookies?
There are two types of cookies: session cookies and persistent cookies.
Session cookies expire when you log off the internet or close your browser (although some session cookies may be retained temporarily). E.g. cookies set by websites to remember information filled in an online form as the user moves to the next page.
Persistent cookies remain on your computer after the users close the browser until they expire or are removed. E.g. cookies that remember user preferences, such as language or color every time they visit the site.
Cookies may also be classified as first-party and third-party cookies, depending on who sets them.
First-party cookies belong to the website that created them. They are generally used for authentication or remembering user preferences.
Third-party cookies belong to companies or websites other than the owner of the website. E.g. Google Analytics cookies used by websites to gather analytical information about users. Or, a cookie set by websites to track users across other websites. Read more about third-party cookies.
These cookies may also be classified as strictly necessary or essential cookies and non-necessary or non-essential cookies, based on their purpose.
Removing or disabling strictly necessary or essential cookies will break the website completely. It is mandatory for a website to function. E.g., cookies used for load balancing or authentication.
On the other hand, disabling non-necessary or non-essential cookies will not break the entire website and users can still use the site without them. E.g., cookies used for analytics, advertisements, or social media sharing.
There are other types of cookies, such as:
- Supercookies: It is a type of cookie that advertisers use to track online activity. Unlike regular cookies that last only while the user is visiting the site, supercookies can last for years. Supercookies are also used to target ads at users by gathering information about what they do online and then providing this information to advertisers
- Zombie cookies: These are cookies that have already been deleted or expired, but still send information back to the website. This can happen if the user comes back to the website before their cookies expire. The zombie cookie will send information like the ID number of the user device and what they were viewing on the site to trackers on the site.
Are internet cookies safe?
Generally, cookies do not contain any malware or viruses in it that can potentially harm your computer. Also, they cannot access any other personal information from the users’ device, nor do they contain any executable code. Therefore, their only job is to help the website collect information about each user’s visit.
In most cases, cookies do not contain any personally identifiable information, but they can be abused by web servers to track users. That is the main reason why cookies have acquired a negative reputation over time.
The information stored in a cookie can be anything from a unique identifier number to an anonymous user ID that does not personally identify the users. Cookies help provide them with a more personalized experience. Not all cookies are created equal, and some may be used to track your online activities across multiple websites and online services.
How to check cookies used by a website?
Most of the popular web browsers provide a way to find out cookies used by a website from its developer tools.
For example, if you use Google Chrome, right-click on the site and Click Inspect > Application > Storage > Cookies to check cookies used by a specific website.
In Firefox and Safari, you can follow a similar method to view cookies. For more details, click here.
Manually checking cookies is time-consuming and you may not always be able to identify the different types of cookies. Online cookie checkers are better and you will get a detailed scan of your website with the list of all the cookie categories and their purpose.
How to remove internet cookies?
Most of the modern browsers have settings that will let you remove or block cookies. It would be better to block only third-party cookies, since blocking necessary cookies may affect your browsing experience.
To remove cookies easily in Chrome, press Ctrl + Shift + Del > set time range as All time > check Cookies and other site data > Clear data.
In Firefox, click the three dots in the upper-right corner > Settings > Privacy & Security > Clear Data under Cookies and Site Data > check Cookies and Site Data > Clear.
Microsoft Edge users can remove cookies by pressing Alt + F > Settings > Privacy, search, and services > Choose what to clear in Clear browsing data > set time range as All time > check Cookies and other site data > Clear now.
In Safari, click Safari > Preferences > Manage Website Data > Remove All > Remove Now > Done.
What is cookie law and how to comply with it?
The cookie law is part of the EU privacy legislation that regulates how cookies are used on a website. It requires websites to get prior cookie consent from users to store cookies on their devices and share details about cookies and their purpose to the users.
To comply with the cookie law, a website must:
- Use a cookie banner to inform users about cookies and their purpose.
- Get consent from users to store non-essential cookies.
- Document cookie consent for proof of compliance.
Read more about cookie law.
Frequently asked questions
Should I accept cookies?
Cookies are useful for a better user experience and the digital economy. The negative reputation of the cookies comes from the way they are used. Some cookies help the website to work more efficiently. Without them, the website may break and may fail to work as expected. However, some cookies do not affect the functionality or services of a website, you can choose to not accept them. Tracking cookies use your personal data to track your online behavior and use it for advertisements or analytics. Such cookies may seem privacy-intrusive and you can opt out of them. Therefore, it all comes down to the purpose of cookies. You must first make yourself aware of the type of cookies and what they do to decide if you should accept them.
Why does a website want you to accept cookies?
Should I enable or disable cookies?
Enabling or disabling cookies depends on whether you are okay with websites to store your personal information to monitor data or track your online activities. In some cases, they also help to make the website function more seamlessly. So, it depends on the type of cookies.
Should you delete internet cookies?
Deleting or blocking internet cookies may stop some functions of the website such as user authentication, media content. In some cases, it may stop tracking your online activity. So, it depends on what type of cookies you delete.
For example, if you delete authentication cookies, the website will remove the saved login credentials and you will have to log in next time you visit the site. If you remove cookies used for advertisements, the site will delete your monitored activity and it will not be able to track you with advertisements unless you accept the cookies once again. In case you remove analytical cookies, the site will not be able to gather data related to how you use the web pages.
What happens when you accept cookies?
When you accept cookies, the website stores the text files in your device that will collect your personal information or monitor your online activities. The site uses this information to customize the user experience, gather analytical data, or place advertisements.
What do internet cookies look like?
Internet cookies are text files that contain a name, value, and attribute. They carry information about the users which is read by the website server to improve user experience on the site or track the user’s online behavior.