Home Technology What Really Happens When You Accept Cookies

What Really Happens When You Accept Cookies

by George Mensah
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If all the cookies you’ve accepted on the internet were real, you’d probably be on a diet by now. Almost every website you visit will greet you by requesting that you accept cookies. If you’re like the average internet user, you do it without hesitation just to get to the point.

In order to comply with a GDPR transparency mandate, these sites would typically display a consent banner with a link to their cookie policy (which no one ever reads), and they may inform you that the cookies are there to enhance your experience. However, as we’ve learned from experience, it’s probably best to accept dessert only from people you know and trust. Also, these “cookies” aren’t just virtual treats; they have real implications for your online (and, by extension, real life) security and privacy, so make sure you know what you’re agreeing to.

What are website cookies?

Website cookies (or HTTP cookies) are small text files sent by the website you’re visiting to the device you’re using. When (or if) you accept them, these cookies are stored on your device’s web browser and can later track and gather data from your browser and send that data back to the website owner (via GDPR). This information is labeled with a session ID that is unique to you and your computer. Following that, the website server reads the ID and uses the saved data to determine what information to specifically serve you.

They’re like one-of-a-kind little stickers that websites place on each user who visits, so that the next time you visit, the server recognizes you as a returning visitor and saves you the trouble of re-introducing yourself. This identification enables websites to “remember” your preferences and provide you with a more personalized experience — for example, if you chose dark mode on your first visit to a website, the feature will be enabled automatically on your next visit if you accept cookies on that website. Cookies also assist websites in remembering when you are logged in, so you don’t have to enter your credentials every time you visit.

How website cookies work

Cookies are an essential part of online browsing; without them, you’d have to rebuild your shopping cart every time you log in to an eCommerce site, or restart sessions each time you open your browsers. Furthermore, some websites will not allow you to access their domain unless you accept cookies.

However, not all cookies are required. According to the GDPR, there are two types of cookies, particularly in terms of the information they collect about you and to whom it is sent:

First-party cookies:

These are also known as session cookies and are placed directly by the website you’re visiting. They collect information about a user’s session on a website, such as language or appearance preferences, analytics data, cart activity, or other functions that contribute to a good user experience, and they only use this information within the single, original domain you’re visiting. First-party cookies are mostly harmless as long as you can verify the authenticity of a website (an easy way is to look for a lock symbol in the address bar).

Third-party cookies:

These cookies, which are also known as persistent cookies, are created by someone other than the website owner and collect/send data to that third party. This “third party” in today’s online landscape is usually an advertiser — the cookies track your activity across different websites, then collect and send information that the advertiser can use to tailor ads to your needs or interests. Because third-party cookies aren’t tied to a single website, you may continue to see highly targeted ad popups even after leaving the original site you visited. That is how advertisements “follow” you around the internet.

What happens when you accept cookies?

When you accept cookies online, you agree to the website owner or advertising company collecting and storing your information (if they are third-party cookies).

According to AllAboutCookies, the data a cookie may collect about you will vary depending on the website, but here are some of the most common inclusions:

Website name and unique session ID

Browsing history

Preferences and permissions

Number of visits

Session duration

Links clicked

Login credentials, including your username and password

Geo-tags, like location and IP address

Personal data, like phone number and zip code

Shopping cart activity

Website owners (or ad companies) can then use this information to provide you with a more personalized experience. Most people don’t mind cookies; it’d be inconvenient to have to start over every time you visit a website where you’ve previously logged in. Even third-party cookies have advantages: they can help you find an ad for a website that sells something you’ve been looking for.

How to clear cookies

However, personal data has become a valuable commodity online, and cookies pose a significant risk of being hacked. So, if you want to be more deliberate about what information you share, you can prevent websites from sharing cookies or choose to block all third-party cookies. You could also manually remove cookies that you’ve previously accepted because they’re stored on your computer.

We have detailed instructions for clearing cookies in Firefox, removing cookies in Google Chrome, and removing cookies in Safari. In most other browsers, you can manage or remove cookies by going to Settings > Privacy (or sometimes Tools, Internet Options, or Advanced) and then following the prompts. You should be aware that this action will not only delete all cookies from your phone or computer, but it will also log you out of most websites and cause some web pages to appear differently than usual.

Should you stop allowing cookies?

Cookies are generally acceptable, but it’s nice to know that you can refuse them if you so desire.

As the demand for online user privacy grows, most platforms and browsers are already phasing out the most vulnerable type of cookie: third-party cookies. According to Cookiebot, Google announced the phaseout from Chrome in 2020 and is working to remove them from the browser by the end of 2024. Firefox is taking a similar approach, implementing “total cookie control,” which will reduce cookie tracking on other sites.

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Furthermore, Apple added a feature to iOS that requires app developers to obtain your permission before tracking your activities across applications or websites. You’ve probably seen the pop-up asking if you want to allow the app to track your activity while using it. If you decline, the app you’re using will be unable to access your device’s advertising identifier, effectively preventing you from receiving targeted ads, though there has been talk of Chinese adtech circumventing Apple’s tracking control.

When it comes down to it, online cookies and real-life cookies should all have one thing in common: you should know exactly what’s in them before you bite, and you should definitely be able to say no to them.

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