In a world where we are constantly confronted with the question, "Do you accept cookies?" it’s time we delve into understanding what this ubiquitous internet query truly means. Beyond the realms of baking and sugary treats, the term ‘cookies’ refers to text files that track and collect data from your web browser, relaying this information back to the website you’re visiting. While the prospect of having your online activity tracked might seem daunting, it’s not as sinister as it appears, and the answer to whether you should allow cookies is not a straightforward yes or no.
These digital ‘cookies’, a term coined by computer programmer Lou Montulli in the mid-1990s, play a crucial role in enhancing your online experience. They remember your preferences, save your login information, and even ensure that your online shopping cart retains your chosen items. However, not all cookies are created equal, and it’s here where the intricacies lie. The decision to accept or reject cookies depends on their type – session, persistent, or third-party – and their role in tailoring your online interactions. As we peel back the layers of this online phenomenon, be ready for a few surprises and maybe even a newfound appreciation for these digital morsels.
To Accept or Not to Accept: The Cookie Conundrum
In the digital world, the term ‘cookie’ has a different connotation than the much-loved chocolate chip treat. Cookies on websites are small text files that track and collect data from your browser, sending that information back to the website. But should we accept cookies when websites ask? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think.
Cookie Origins and Purpose
The concept of website cookies was introduced in the mid-1990s by a computer programmer named Lou Montulli. He named these text files ‘cookies’ because of the term "magic cookie" he had heard in a college operating systems course. Montulli’s cookies were designed to improve a website’s memory, enabling it to remember who you are when you return to them.
According to Cris Angulo, a computer expert at JustAnswer.com, accepting cookies can be more of a personal preference. They are neither inherently good nor bad; their value lies in their ability to enhance your online experience by remembering details like your login information, items in your shopping cart, or your location for weather forecasts.
The Cookie Spectrum
Not all cookies are created equal. According to Tim Finin, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, there are three types of cookies:
- Session cookies are the safest and most useful for users, helping websites deliver content suited for your device and remember your choices. They get deleted when you close your browser.
- Persistent cookies are created by websites you visit and stored on your device. They remember helpful things about you, like your account, and can only be accessed by the site that created them.
- Third-party cookies are the least useful and most intrusive. These are cookies developed by third parties, not the website you’re visiting, and can save and integrate information about your web activities useful for marketing.
The Dark Side of Cookies
While cookies can enhance your browsing experience, third-party cookies can track your web behavior and share it with advertisers. When you click on ‘allow all cookies,’ you are enabling the website to install dozens of third-party cookies and trackers, explained Roberto Yus, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This means advertisers can monitor your browsing habits, including the news articles you read and the products you search for.
Blocking Third-Party Cookies
Blocking third-party cookies can be achieved by following instructions specific to your chosen browser. However, some websites might not function correctly if you reject their cookies. Steve Weisman, a senior lecturer in law, taxation and financial planning at Bentley University, warns against allowing cookies from unencrypted websites, as your data isn’t protected and personal information can be more readily stolen. A quick way to identify such websites is by looking at the URL—if there’s no ‘s’ after ‘http,’ it’s probably best to avoid allowing cookies.