What are cookies and should I accept them?

If you regularly visit websites, either on your phone, or a desktop, chances are that you’ve seen numerous pop-ups asking you to accept or manage cookies. Yet, while the term ‘cookie’ may conjure up a sweet image, in reality, computer cookies can be troublesome.

What are they?

Put most simply, a computer cookie is a small file, which is stored on your phone on computer. They are designed hold a certain amount of data on a specific client/website and can be accessed by the web server (so Google, for example) or by the computer.

When you visit a site that uses cookies for the first time, a cookie is downloaded onto your PC. The next time you visit that site, your device checks to see if it has a cookie that is relevant (that is, one containing the site name) and sends the information contained in that cookie back to the site.

In practice, this allows the server to deliver a page tailored to a particular user. For instance, if your favourite website allows both an English and Spanish option and you choose English, the cookie will remember that preference and the next time you access the website it will automatically take you to the English version.

Why do we need cookies?

Some cookies are more sophisticated, particularly when they store data on what is in your ‘shopping cart’, adding items as you click. Without cookies, the website can’t retain this information from one page to the next and online shopping becomes much harder.

How Secure are they?

Cookies do not in themselves present a threat to privacy, since they can only be used to store information that the user has volunteered or that the web server already has. 

Nonetheless, it is possible that this information could be made available to specific third-party websites. Some commercial websites, for example, include embedded advertising material which is served from a third-party site – such information might include the name of the site, products being viewed, and pages visited. 

Therefore, when the user visits another website containing a similar embedded advert from the same third-party site, the advertiser will be able to read the cookie and use it to determine some information about the user’s browsing history. 

This enables publishers to serve adverts targeted at a user’s interests, in theory making them be more relevant to the user, by allowing an advertiser to build up a profile of a user.

What can you do about them?

One fascinating way to see how many times your browser tries to track you, is by downloading ‘Lockdown’ (only available on iPhones currently). You may be surprised with the result – the average number it records being around 20,000 per week. 

f you want to turn cookies off on your iPhone, and you use Safari as your browser, go to ‘Settings’ –> ‘Safari’ –> and then scroll down to ‘Privacy and Security’ and flick the toggle ‘Block all cookies’.
In addition, most browsers will have a configuration screen that allows you to see what cookies have been stored on the computer or Android, and optionally to delete them. On Chrome for instance, go to ‘Settings’ –> ‘Privacy and security’ and click Cookies and other site data. Then, select ‘Block third-party cookies’.

Remember you have more options than manually accepting or rejecting cookies for each website you surf!

Got any questions? Write a comment in the section below.

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