A cookie is usually a small text file that is saved by your computer’s web browser. The website’s web server can read and access the cookies that it set through your computer’s web browser (but not any cookies that belong to other sites), which makes the cookie useful to website owners for various – keeping track of purchases you have made in an online store, or tracking how many visitors visit a website on a given day, for example.
One of the most common uses of the cookie is to simply store a unique identifier in it (usually a randomly sequence of letters and numbers) that allows the web server to recognise that when you take an action on the website (for example, clicking on a link) that it was you that did this rather than someone else.
- A cookie can be used to gather statistics, allowing website owners to understand what people clicked on in their visit, how long they spent on pages, and so on;
- A cookie can be used to deliver a personalised browsing experience tailored by your previous actions – this is often seen with personalised adverts on some sites – if you’ve searched for “cheap flights to south africa”, some sites may continue to show you information matching that earlier search;
- It can be used for security purposes, for example when buying the latest bestseller from Amazon, or paying for that winning bid you had in eBay.
Why are some people concerned about cookies?
If you run security scans on your computer, you may have heard about ‘Tracking Cookies’ or you may have been prompted to remove them. Not all (and possibly none) of these ‘Tracking Cookies’ are anything to be concerned about, but some may be and it is these particular tracking cookies that have primarily caused some people to be concerned about cookie use.
A ‘Tracking Cookie’ is a cookie that tracks where you go on a website. In almost all cases this will be limited to tracking your movements on a particular site, such as how you got there and at what point you left. No personally identifiable information is kept. Unfortunately, some other tracking cookies have been going much further than this, and this is why some people have concerns about these types of cookies. Rather than tracking down individual website owners whose websites behave badly, all websites in the EU and UK have to comply with the new law.
This just gives you a brief overview of what cookies are & why they are used, and what has led to the new law I write about in a later post.