Last updateFri, 22 May 2020 12pm

The cookie conundrum

Cookies are among the least understood aspects of computer technology. 

Depending on who you listen to, cookies may have been explained as evil and intrusive spying mechanisms (actually that is the NSA) tracking your every move on the net or cookies may have been described as a harmless way to make your Internet experience easier.  I hope this week’s column will help to clear up any confusion and possibly ease concerns.

The reason so many people are wondering lately about cookies is because new messages keep popping up while surfing the web. Web sites often display “We use cookies for analytics, performance, security, advertising and social media. You consent to our cookies if you continue to use our Web site.”  That message is there to now comply with European Union regulations and legal requirements of other jurisdictions. Most Web sites are using cookies today the same way they have been doing it for a decade; the only change is that the legal disclaimer is now required.

So what is a cookie? It is a small text-only file containing information used by the Web site you visited.  That includes the site name and unique user ID and possibly other information such as how long you spent on each page on the site, what links you clicked, language preferences, lists of what is in your “shopping cart,” etc.  It is important to note that everything just mentioned is information you voluntarily put there either by letting your Web browser do it for you or by you typing in information on the Web site.  There is simply no way a cookie can contain any of your personal information such as name, address, passwords or credit card numbers unless you were the one who typed it in.

So why is there so much paranoia about cookies? The answer has to do with the fact that using cookies is inherently sneaky. Internet users simply did not understand their own computer was being used to store information which could then be used to build a picture of their browsing habits.

Third-party cookies are created on your computer by a Web site other than the one you are currently viewing.  For example, you might not be a Facebook user, never visit facebook.com, and do not want anything to do with Facebook; but there is a Facebook button on other Web sites you do want to visit. That Facebook button on your favorite Web site can allow Facebook to set a cookie to track your every move even if you never go anywhere near facebook.com.  And Facebook is far from the only company attempting to track your online activities and sell that information to advertisers.

Your Web browser has some control over what cookies are allowed into your computer. You may disable the third-party cookies while permitting other cookies. It is also possible to completely disable cookies, but then be prepared to receive the “This Web site requires you to permit cookies” message every time you try to visit a web site.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at SMAguru.com.

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