Internet Cookies: Are They Watching You?

What is an internet cookie?

Perhaps you’ve seen the pop-ups on websites asking you to “accept cookies.” I’ll outline an all too common scenario of how internet cookies are used.

You open your web browser and search for a product. It doesn’t matter what it is. Maybe you wanted to buy it, but they didn’t have it in your size. Perhaps they had your size, but it was too expensive. Maybe after browsing, you realize that there wasn’t anything that interested you. Whatever the case may be, you know you won’t escape the impending wave. You know what I’m referring to. The next thing you know, you can’t surf the web or browse social media without being bombarded by ads for a product you may not even want. Gone are the days of “just looking.”

We’ve all been there before.

It’s time to remember some words of warning from Laura Numeroff’s first book in her If you give… series: “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll probably ask for a glass of milk.”

This is to say that a cookie is never just a cookie, and ironically, the same can be said about internet cookies and data privacy.

internet cookies and mouse

We’re all too aware of those popups on most websites asking if you’ll accept all or some optional types of cookies—a fancy way of asking if they can track your activity on the website. But what does that mean? How do cookies work? Are they watching you through your camera as you navigate the site? Not really; it’s more subtle than that. Let’s unpack this cookie phenomenon.

Cookies were introduced by Netscape in 1994 to acknowledge whether a user had previously accessed a site and to save their preferences. This technology enabled the first e-commerce websites to function by keeping items that a user placed in their shopping cart. Cookies were intended to enhance the experience on the website because the internet was not constructed in a way where it would remember a user’s session automatically.

“So, if they’re not dangerous, why are we talking about cookies?

This is where things get interesting.

Just like a bakery, the internet has numerous types of cookies. Some are quite harmless and improve the user-experience, others less so. It’s essential to understand the distinction between the three main types.

Three Types of Internet Cookies

  • Session Cookie: This is a temporary cookie that the website uses to help ensure a smooth experience. An e-commerce website uses these cookies to remember the items in your shopping cart; otherwise, the site would treat each click as if you were a new visitor.
  • Persistent Cookie: Persistent cookies are also intended to improve your experience on a website. Also known as “first-party cookies,” these cookies help remember website passwords and preferences such as language. Typically, these cookies are safe, but saving a password is a security risk, so we advise declining if a site offers to save your password.
  • Third-Party Cookie: 3rd party cookies are used by advertisers to track your search history, location, age, preferences, and other sorts of personal information to send you targeted advertisements. At first, you might feel happy about personalized ads for products that interest you. Unfortunately, with too many of these marketers, you’re not a human being. You’re a number they can sell to.  

 So, what can you do?

  • Use web browsers that respect your privacy, like, Mozilla’s Firefox or Brave, and search engines that protect your data privacy Qwant, DuckDuckGo or Startpage.
  • Delete your cookie cache at least once every two weeks (daily is better despite the added time and effort).
  • Stop storing passwords in your browser.
  • Start using a password manager such as LastPass or Dashlane.
  • Opt-out of third-party cookies. In California, this right is protected by the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). Companies that do not comply face a $7,500 fine for each violation. Other regions, such as the European Union, also offer strict control of cookies.
  • Outside California, if your state does not offer robust controls to users, write to your state representative, asking them to act—and soon.

Access to a good education is a global challenge, and the same is true data privacy education. The details and of the internet are not something most people understand, and the challenge grows more complex each year. Consequently, we don’t automatically understand the jargon and fine print that lawyers and corporations use to muddle the meaning embedded in terms of service agreements (we need less manipulation, more transparency).

Perhaps it’s finally time to reconfigure the internet to strengthen support for data privacy simultaneously with the newer functions. It’s just a thought, but maybe that’s how the cookie crumbles.

Until corporations and vendors take maximum responsibility for protecting their customers privacy and security, take steps to protect your online privacy and join our movement. Check out the advice from the privacy pros at Quora. You can also find an interview with Presence CEO Mukul Kumar at Quora. If you want to continue learning about data privacy, find and follow us in our space at Quora (this space requires free registration). Let’s start a conversation!

Read our blog post on 10 tips to better protect your online privacy.

Join the movement #PrivacyFirst

Aug 18, 2020 11:11:01 PM

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