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Does a cookie crumble?

In this social media age where we all overshare, worrying about privacy is a practice we often neglect. And while it’s relatively easy to vet what we share on Facebook and check if there’s anything incriminating on the photos we upload on Instagram, there are other, sneakier ways how companies, websites, and other outfits keep track of our browsing habits.

You have probably heard the term ‘cookies’ before – if you’ve ever read a piece on internet privacy, the article probably mentioned cookies. If you’ve visited a reputable site lately, you might have encountered a form where they ask you if it’s ok to leave cookies in your computer. And if you’ve watched clips of ‘news’ programs trumpeting the dangers of the internet, they might have painted cookies as an evil and devious tool of organizations to stalk you on the internet.

First, let’s get the most pressing concern out of the way. Cookies are NOT viruses. They’re text files, not code that can be executed. They also can’t replicate themselves or spread to other networks. They are NOT programs. By themselves, they don’t do anything at all.

Strictly speaking, cookies are small text files used by web developers to make the navigation of users on their websites easier and more efficient. They are usually stored on a user’s computer and contain data specific to a particular client and website. There’s nothing esoteric about them – you can even view them using the Notebook application on your computer.

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What does it do?

It works like this: when you visit a site for the first time, a cookie is created in your PC – usually containing two basic info: the site name and a unique user ID. For your subsequent visits to that site, your PC checks if there’s an appropriate cookie (one that contains the site name) and sends the information contained in that cookie back to the site.The site will then ‘recognize’ you and, if applicable, customize what pops up on your screen.

Why? In essence, to make your visit more effectual. Cookies, for example, help facilitate authentication if you log in to a secure area of a website. The log-in data can be stored in the cookie so that you won’t have to keep re-entering your authentication credentials repeatedly.

For sites that feature some customization options for the user (like themes, layouts, or color schemes), the cookie will store your data so that the website can adapt to your preferences whenever you visit.

Cookies can also save your activities on the page so you can easily pick up where you left off. It’s not the website that has a ‘memory’ of you – it’s the cookie on your computer that tells the website what to show so that you don’t need to navigate the site all over again. The cookie, for example, takes note of your order information for the website’s ‘shopping cart’.Without cookies, online shopping would be inconvenient.

Cookies can have other functions that will help web navigation. But in general, cookies are designed to help you – to make your navigation easier without requiring extra effort on your part.

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So what’s the problem?

The websites that you visit aren’t the only ones that make cookies. Websites that run ads, widgets, and other elements on a website can also have cookies. These cookies tell which ads should appear on your screen or how widgets should function according to your previous actions.

Ever noticed how after you book a flight to Kota Kinabalu, the ads that you see in Facebook, other sites, and even the pre-video ads on YouTube are all about Kota Kinabalu hotels, things to do, etc.? Don’t start drawing protective runes on your laptop – it’s not black magic, it’s just the cookies telling the ad widgets on those sites what you’d probably be interested in.

Admittedly, the idea that some agency might have data about you without your specific consent can be disturbing. While there is nothing especially secret or unique about the data gathered about you, many people consider cookies to be inherently duplicitous. After all, your PC is being used (often without notice) to store information about you, which is used to build a profile of your browsing habits.

Loathing the idea that your name is added to a marketing list or that your online habits are used to target you about special offers is an entirely valid response. If you don’t like this, there are steps you can take to limit or prevent websites from using cookies on your computer – although because of their core function of enhancing/enabling the usability of websites, disabling cookies may prevent you from using certain functionalities on websites or prevent you from navigating them altogether.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who feel positive about cookies at best, and ambivalent about them at worst. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been presented with quaint articles about comic books I would never have found on my own if not for the fact that cookies in my laptop told websites what I’m interested about. Since advertisements are inescapable anyway, I prefer that the ads presented to me are those relevant to my interests. I also get ideas and notifications about sales on the places we visit whenever the wife uses our home PC to book our flights. This way, we save money and get options on what we can do when we’re there.

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What should you do?

Due to a law in the EU that requires all sites that use cookies to explicitly ask for your permission to store and retrieve data about your online activities, you’ve probably been more aware about cookies now than before. Don’t be alarmed if you notice websites asking for your permission – chances are, they were probably gathering data about you before and you were just unaware about it. You don’t need to be scared of cookies even if the consent prompts feel a little disconcerting.

Because cookies are critical to how numerous websites function, we can expect little to change in this area. Of course, if you don’t want cookies stored in your computer, you can easily disable them by going to the ‘Tools’ menu in your browser of choice and ticking the appropriate option. Should you require more help, do a quick Google search to get step-by-step instructions.