What is a cookie? And why do we need cookies?

online business Jul 16, 2020

THE INTERNET IS NOT the same unregulated place it was back when I started using it (around 1997). These days we have GDPR compliance (personal data and privacy protection for citizens of the European Union), more recently we have LGPD, which is the Brazilian version of GDPR—and I'm sure other countries will follow suit.

Cookies getting in your face

Cookies have been a fact of life in our online world for quite some time. In fact, back in the days of innocence, you may have browsed many websites using cookies while being blissfully unaware. It was only once GDPR became enforceable (beginning May 25, 2018, according to Wikipedia) that the general public was forced to think about cookies almost every day.

You know the feeling. You arrive at a website (such as this one) and the first thing you're greeted with is a banner notifying you that “This site uses cookies.” Are you sick of seeing them yet? Well, now you know why they've been popping up everywhere like fever blisters on hot flesh.

Because we need cookies.

And because now the world requires you to be hyper-aware whenever you're about to get cozy with them.

Why do we need cookies?

According to Just Ask Thales, a site that helps you navigate the digital world, a cookie is a text file. Websites use them to customize your experience.

In an article about cookies, Just Ask Thales says:

A basic example is remembering your geographic location to customize weather, movie or traffic information for you. Cookies can also analyze Web traffic, customize banner ads, store items in your shopping cart, remember your username and password, and do many other things.

So, if you've been wondering “Are cookies bad?”, you can breathe a sigh of relief and know that regular cookies on bona fide websites are not out to steal anything from you. They're designed to help the website help you.

Are there times when cookies are dangerous?

According to WebsitePolicies.com, in their article entitled What Are Cookies and Why Are They Important?:

Cookies themselves are harmless because they aren’t able to hold code. They can neither contain nor execute viruses or any other malicious code. But sometimes cookies can indirectly become the cause of malicious activities involving your data.

So, what can you do to stay safe?

One habit you should cultivate is to look in the address bar of your browser whenever you enter a new website. Can you see https at the beginning of the domain name? If you don't see the 's' and you only see http, then you should either leave that site or be extremely careful (don't shop and don't login).

You can also click on the padlock next to the web address to check on the SSL certificate that is securing the website. SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer, and that's where the 's' comes from in https.

Below is the box that popped down when I clicked on the padlock in my current browser tab. Next to the padlock you can see the notice in green text: “You are securely connected to this site.” This was verified by AO Kaspersky Lab, which is my virus software. You can also click on the “More Information” bar if you want to know more.

The next time I clicked on the padlock, it was slightly different (see image below). I got the green “Connection secure” notice, but I was also given the option to “Clear Cookies and Site Data.” It's tempting to be trigger happy and clear the cookies because you don't want a website “spying” on you, but be sure you understand first how the cookies are helping you. If you're on a trusted site (especially one you use often), clearing the cookies and cache will wipe out all your preferences.

However, now you know you have the option to clear cookies on a site-by-site basis, where available. You can also just wait and do a cookies sweep by using your browser settings (for instance, in Firefox that's found under Options > Privacy and Security).

Protect yourself

What else can you do to protect yourself from wrongful use of cookies?

  • Install quality anti-virus software
  • Don't download free software (it may contain malicious applications)
  • Learn more about how and why to clear your cookies, so you can make an informed choice

Graham Cluley runs a website offering computer security news, advice, and opinion. In an article on Cluley's site entitled Why it’s a good idea to clear your browser history and cookies, writer David Bisson gives clear and comprehensive info on why and how we should uphold this practice.

Self-educate!

Before writing this article, I had only a sketchy idea what cookies are for, what file type cookies use, and why sometimes they might be risky. Having just uploaded my new Cookie Policy, I wanted to be well-informed as a site owner. I learned a lot by researching before I started writing.

It doesn't take long to do a little research. Just be sure to get your info from reputable websites. Don't listen to the fearmongers. Read only articles that offer balanced reporting.

Wanna get up to speed fast? Click on the links in this article and you'll soon be more knowledgeable and able to protect yourself—while also putting cookies into perspective. Cookies are text files (not monsters lurking beneath every website) and, for the most part, they function as tools that offer convenience by understanding our preferences.

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Milli Thornton is the online course presenter here at Lucky Learning. Among other policies (the links to which can be found in the footer menu), as an online business owner her website incorporates a professionally-prepared Cookie Policy and a cookies notification banner.

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