Privacy 101 🧠

What are computer cookies and when you should accept them

So, what are the different types of internet cookies and why are you seeing so many pop-ups now?

Cookies are nothing new on the Internet, but the neverending pop-up notifications nearly everywhere you browse are. 

Cookies, in short, are a way for websites to identify return users. They are like a trail of crumbs that users leave behind on every site they visit, allowing those websites to track their interactions. 

More specifically, cookies are small text files that allow those sites to monitor and remember information about you. They are specifically useful for advertisers and marketers. You can thank those ads for a new pair of Nikes that follow you around the internet after a single search engine search on cookies.

Oftentimes cookies are helpful. They prevent you from having to reenter your login information every time you visit your favorite websites. They remember your zipcode when checking the weather and items you left in your virtual shopping cart.

Cookies have been around since 1994, but up until 2018, they were mainly invisible to everyday users of the internet. The reason you are seeing an influx of pop-ups asking you to accept almost every website’s cookie policy is due to a sweeping data privacy law passed in the European Union in 2018.

The law, called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR),  back in 2018, forces companies to get explicit consent to collect your data. Since cookies collect your data, those companies must now check with you if it’s OK.

You do not have to accept cookies when these websites ask for your permission, but the downside of this is that some websites won’t allow you in if you don’t accept. This is not common, but you are likely to run into examples.

Should I accept cookies?

For the most part, cookies are harmless. If you are browsing a reputable website that you trust, there is little to no harm that could be done via cookies.

There are a few instances where you should be cautious when clicking yes to accept a website’s cookie policy. 

The first is when you encounter what appears to be a generally sketchy or untrustworthy site. If you have any questions about the authenticity or how secure a website is, check to see if it is encrypted via HTTPS. You can check this by looking for a lock or unlocked lock icon next to the URL in your browser. If you are on an unsecured website, hackers could collect the information collected by cookies and use it to pose as you.

The types of internet cookies

There are two main types of internet cookies, first-party cookies and third-party cookies. 

First-party cookies are the cookies placed by the website you are visiting, such as the cookie by that remembers your zip code and presents the weather for your city every time you visit. It is a helpful and harmless tool that makes life easier for you.

The second type of cookie is where things become a bit more “grey,” third-party cookies.

Third-party cookies are cookies made by a third party or domains other than the one you are visiting at the time. They are used primarily for tracking you across the internet and follow you even after you have left the original site where you may have accepted all cookies.

Advertisers and marketers mainly use third-party cookies. They also allow these third-parties to collect your browsing data and even sell that data to data brokers. What they are selling is a profile of you are as a consumer.

Third-party cookies can also lead to “cookie stealing” or “session hijacking,” where hackers could steal cookies from a browser and put you are risk of identity theft. Your cookies, in this instance, may store your personal information and even credit card information.

Follow our guide to check if you were part of a data breach here.

The best thing you can do is to take the time to read privacy policies before accepting cookies to see what you are giving away. Most importantly, check to see if that website uses third-party cookies before accepting.

The future of cookies, what comes next

The web is undergoing an evolution and a big part of that is a move away from cookies. Google’s Chrome browser is dropping cookies by 2022. Both Firefox and Safari started blocking third-party cookies last year.

If third-party cookies do go by the wayside, first-party cookies are likely here to stay. 

One thing is for sure, the move against third-party cookies has significantly altered marketing and any actions to continue tracking in a new form in the future will have to prioritize encryption, users’ privacy and trust.

Related: How to delete yourself from the internet in 10 steps

Related: The 5 most common types of data breaches