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How worried should you be about cookies?

In this article, we review what cookies are in the computer realm, their purpose and how to manage them.

What is a cookie in computers?
A cookie is what we call a small text file that a website stores on your computer’s hard drive or in your mobile devices.

Origin / First-Party cookies
The original purpose of cookies was to provide you with a better browsing experience. Here is how it works: when you visit a website, its web server (the computer where the web content is stored) creates a small text file and transmits it to the web browser you are using (the software that retrieves and displays the web page). The web browser stores that small text file on your computer.

The file contains your website preferences, such as language, layouts, configuration, or items in your shopping cart. It serves as memory, so that the next time you visit that website, the web browser ‘remembers’ what your preferences are by pulling the stored file from your computer and applying those settings to the website automatically. For example, if you went to a website and placed items in its shopping cart, but didn’t buy them right away, the cookie would save the items you placed in the shopping cart on a cookie in your computer and in your future visit to that website, the cookie would automatically bring them back up into your shopping cart– you wouldn’t have to go search for those items again.

The cookie doesn’t go digging into your other computer files once it is in your computer’s hard drive. Remember, the cookie is a text file, not a program; it only records certain activity you take in the website (i.e. selected English as the preferred language). Also, each cookie is unique for it’s website, so if you visit a different website, website B is not able to read the cookie from website A.

Sometimes, websites are dependent on their cookies for their features and security to work. Cookies from the original website that are designed for functionality are considered first-party cookies.

The file we call ‘cookie’ is text-only data and is a small file that can reach its limits quickly. But developers came up with a smarter way to save more of your information and keep the file small. Instead of saving your website preferences, cookies now save a unique ID; this ID relays your website preferences to the website’s server which is where developers now store your data. This way, there is no restriction to how much information the website can gather. Companies can now collect more information of your behavior on their website, such as which links you click on, times you are most active on the web, interests, etc This has been beneficial for the advertising industry, because Ad networks depend on your online activity to create a profile – age, gender, tastes, etc. – to target you with products that you are likely to buy.

Why do I see ads for things I was looking for on another site? / Third-Party cookies
While some companies create independent websites, other companies allow outside companies to display certain things in their own website. For example, some websites allow Ad networks to display their ads on their website. The ads are not from the original company and don’t need to store information related to website functionality. However, the ad networks who created the ads want to learn your product choices, so they want to record when you click on an ad. Consequently, the web server from the ad network sends its cookies through its ad to be installed in your computer. These are called Third-Party cookies.

Through these third-party cookies, these Ad networks gather information about your product preferences and develop your profile (IP address and ads you clicked on, which may reveal your age, gender, income, etc.) Using that data, the ads networks will select and show you more ads for products that you are likely to buy. That is why you can be on website A, see an ad for a product, click on that ad. Then leave the ad and the website. The next day, you go to a different website (B), and you see the product from yesterday displayed there as well. Website B also has an agreement with the ad network, and the ad network remembers you and your product choices from the Third-Party cookies it installed yesterday. While Third-Party cookies are good in that the ads you see are more relevant to your tastes and needs, it also means that there are companies who have information about your consumer profile.

Watch: A short video about how cookies work.

Managing cookies / Privacy
Cookies, First-Party and Third-Party, are not innately bad. They are designed to make your web browsing and shopping experience better. But if it makes you uncomfortable and you want to keep your information private, be careful about what you click, how you use the web and what your web browser settings are. Here is some helpful information to manage cookies according to browser.


Google Chrome: technologies/managing

Mozilla Firefox: firefox/protect-your-privacy/cookies

Microsoft Edge: windows-10-microsoft-edge-and-privacy

Microsoft Internet Explorer: Windows-Internet-explorer-delete-manage-cookies