If you’re a regular internet user you’ll probably be familiar with website cookies by now. We’re talking about the (somewhat annoying) pop-up notification that’s suddenly started appearing on every website you visit. But, before you blindly agree to accept all cookies, have you ever stopped to ask yourself what cookies actually are? And – more importantly – whether you should consent to them?
In this guide we explain why websites have cookies, the different types of cookies that exist, and what you’re actually agreeing to when you say yes to cookies tracking you.
What are cookies?
Unlike the baked goods they share their name with, web cookies (also known as HTTP cookies) are actually small files that generate whenever you’re using a website.
For the most part, cookies are there to facilitate a smooth browsing experience, but they can also be used to identify you and track your behaviour online. An example of the latter is when you revisit an online retailer’s website and items from a previous browsing session are still showing in your basket.
Types of website cookies
Common types of website cookies you’ll encounter online are session cookies and persistent cookies, as well as first party and third party cookies.
Session cookies are temporary files that help a website to function, for example, being able to use the back button to return to a previous page. These types of cookies are considered non harmful as the cookies are deleted when you end your browsing session.
Persistent cookies are used for authentication and tracking. These cookies can remain on your computer indefinitely, and are responsible for autofilling your password and other data fields. They can also track your behaviour across certain websites, including your browsing and purchase history.
First party cookies are generated by the website you’re browsing and consist of functional cookies, necessary for the website to operate, as well as optimised cookies to enhance your browsing experience. This includes things like remembering any preferences you’ve previously selected, such as language or location settings.
Third party cookies are created by ads linked to the website you’re browsing. These cookies generate even if you never click on the ad, and they allow third party businesses to track your behaviour across every website their ads feature on.
Why do sites have cookies?
As we’ve briefly touched on, websites need certain cookies to function correctly. These kinds of cookies are often referred to as ‘strictly necessary’ cookies and there’s usually no option to turn them off.
Other types of cookies, however, are intended to track your behaviour and can be used to extract, retain, and share information about your browsing sessions online. These cookies can be less welcome as they can compromise your data privacy and in some cases allow third parties to access information about you. On the other hand, they can also help to improve your browsing experience, for example, making it simpler to log in or check out.
Should we accept a websites’ cookies?
The choice of whether to accept web cookies or not is entirely down to you. Most websites will offer you the option to accept or reject all non-essential cookies, or tailor your cookie preferences to select which cookies you’re OK with.
For websites you visit frequently, you might want to agree to first party cookies but turn off third party or advertiser cookies. This will allow the website you’re using to track your behaviour so it can deliver a more personalised experience on future visits, but prohibits other websites or businesses from tracking you.
If you’re really concerned about data privacy, however, you’ll probably want to say no to all cookies on the websites you visit. While this means that each time you visit a website you’ll be treated like a first time user, it restricts any personal information you share with the website from being retained; reducing the chances of sensitive details, such as your address or password, being harvested by a data hacker.