You see them almost every time you visit a website, be that an ecommerce store, media outlet or service provider. But what are cookies, and what impact do they have on your private data?
Cookies are files that your computer, phone or tablet store and are designed to hold small, specific amounts of data about a particular website or server. The information held in these files is any data you provide the website you are visiting, such as your email address, an account you create with them, a birthdate or even something as simple as a personal preference. These details are held on your computer so that the next time you visit the site, your internet browser can send the ‘cookie’ to the web server and the data inside can be accessed and reused. Ever used Autofill when checking out? Those are cookies in action.
Cookies can also be used for:
– Activating retargeting ads: From the information that a user inputs, such as their age, gender, location, interests and even behaviours on search engines and social media, advertisers are able to target groups according to these variables.
– Retaining information such as the items in your shopping cart
– Saving user preferences
For users, because web servers do not store any information, cookies act as ‘reminders’ of all the information entered previously. They are designed to create a more convenient, speedy browsing (and purchasing) experience.
From an advertising standpoint, cookies can be used to facilitate digital marketing functions, both directly and indirectly. As they collect data such as user activity and personal information, cookies have experienced scrutiny for their potential impacts on privacy. However, regular cookies do not compromise user security. They act simply as a ‘bookmark’ so users don’t have to re-navigate or re-enter information into websites upon return. Granted, there are Malicious tracking cookies in existence, which track online activity and preferences and build a bank of data that can then be commodified and sold to companies without the owners’ consent. However, this issue can mostly be avoided by having the latest version of antivirus software installed into your computer, which identifies suspicious cookie activity and allows you to delete them.
Cookies have become a mainstream tool for retargeting advertising as well as a way to enhance customer experiences and are generally not dangerous to your personal data, as they have no way of reproducing autonomously or spreading to other networks or computers. Their functions are primarily to allow for retargeting advertisements and remembering previously input information, making the browsing experience more intuitive and simple.