What Is a Website Cookie? How Cookies Affect Your Online Privacy

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Whether you’re browsing Google search results, logging into Facebook, or just innocently chatting away on an online forum, you’ve encountered cookies. They aren’t inherently harmful but, just like passwords or email addresses, they are exploitable when placed in the wrong hands.

Keep reading to learn about what cookies are and why they can be so dangerous in the wrong hands.

What Is a Website Cookie?

Cookies are files on your computer that begin their life when you visit a website. They store bits of information about your interactions with the website. A cookie is created on your first visit and then checked on repeat visits by the website that made it.

Why Do Cookies Have That Name?

The cookie has an odd name, yet nobody has a straight answer on why it’s called such. One theory is that it’s derived from the term “magic cookie,” which was a term used for a packet of data back in 1979. Another is that it’s a reference to Hansel and Gretel, who navigated a forest using cookie crumbs. Another says it’s because, at the time, a show called the Andy Williams Show had a character called the “Cookie Bear” who would ask for a cookie, much like a computer does.

How Your Computer Gets Cookies

Regardless of how cookies got their name, you’ve probably seen websites inform you that they’re going to give you one. You may even get options to customize what gets stored in it. This popup is due to the EU’s GDPR law, which states that users must agree to cookies that store personal data. That’s why websites these days seem so keen to tell you about their cookie usage.

Cookies are specific to you, and it can be read by the webserver when you interact with it. Programs on your computer can also read them.

A diagram showing how cookies are created and used.
Image Credit: Tizio/Wikimedia

Your browser mediates the cookies between your computer and the website. The website can tailor the content you see, depending on what cookies you have stored. Cookies can expire after a given period (usually determined by the website issuing the cookie), but if necessary, you can delete them yourself.

Why Do Cookies Exist?

So, why do we use cookies on the internet? Because they’re convenient and efficient. If a website wants to service thousands of users without cookies, it would have to store and process all of the interaction data. By offloading that work to your browser, it becomes a faster and less difficult procedure.

Cookies identify you on the website. Cookies can store all sorts of information, like your preferences, your browser type, your location, etc. The website can then use this information to enhance your experience.

For example, have you ever closed your web browser, re-opened it, and saw that you the website didn’t sign you out? This was possible via the power of cookies. The cookie for the website remembered your login information and used it to log you back in quickly.

How Do Cookies Affect You?

A login screen representing what information a cookie stores.
Image Credit: mishoo/Depositphotos

For the most part, cookies are not harmful. They’re just another protocol used on the internet to facilitate communication between users and servers. Cookies cannot carry viruses or malware, nor can they transfer malicious programs to other users.

As such, going on the warpath on cookies isn’t necessary most of the time. You lose the convenience of staying logged into your favorite websites and gain very little.

So, what should you worry about? The worst possible scenario would be the interception or forgery of one of your cookies, which would allow another user to impersonate you on some website. This could result in them eavesdropping on your user data or hijacking your account credentials.

However, there’s no need to worry. Cookie security mostly depends on the website and your browser; a cookie encryption feature, for example, can help protect you from hackers.

A more prevalent issue is a specific type of cookie called the “tracking cookie.” These cookies do not have your wellbeing in mind. Instead, they keep track of all of your actions on certain websites.

These harvest data to build browsing history profiles, which can then target specific ads to you. As such, this causes a privacy issue where cookies snoop on your every move.

Protecting Your Privacy With Cookies

Here’s what you need to know about cookie privacy: they cannot see any information that you don’t personally provide. In other words, just because a website has a cookie on you doesn’t mean that they know everyone in your family and which schools you’ve attended—unless you entered that information to the website.

The biggest problem with tracking cookies is that an advertising agency can view your browsing history, as that’s what they use to target ads relevant to your interests. You can prevent them from doing this, of course, by playing with your browser settings and disabling cookies.

If you’re using a modern-day browser, there’s likely a chance you already have tracking cookie protection. For example, back in 2019, Firefox began blocking tracking cookies by default

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. As such, it’s worth checking what your browser is doing to protect you from tracking cookies.

If you don’t want to disable all cookies and keep a level of convenience, some browsers let you disable specific cookies from certain domains. Meanwhile, more advanced browsers allow you to synchronize with blacklists maintained by people or communities to block domains with shady cookie practices. You can also enable HSTS to prevent cookie hijacking

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Ultimately, when it comes to cookie privacy, it’s all about trust. Do you trust that website to log every interaction? Read their privacy policy and terms of use—you can usually find these on the website near the header or footer. If you don’t trust them, you can always wipe your cookies later.

Getting the Facts Straight on Website Cookies

Website cookies store your data, but there’s no real reason to be afraid of them. They’re there to make your internet life more manageable by remembering who you are and how you use the website. If you dislike the idea of cookies, however, you can always tell your browser never to store them.

If you’re hungry for more cookies, be sure to learn about the different types of browser cookies

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