When you use the internet, you leave something behind: small pieces of information about the sites you’ve visited, search terms, your computer’s internet address and whereabouts.
This trail, made up of tiny breadcrumbs of information about you, is aggregated into data banks that can be mined for information about your internet habits which is sold to marketers and advertisers.
There’s been an explosion in personal information created and stored online in recent years. Just think of the daily, even hourly, transactions that internet users can do via the net – banking, messaging, shopping, viewing, listening to music, researching, publishing and so on.
These repositories of personal information are gleaned from our online activities through our internet browser and cookies. A cookie is a small piece of data that is stored on a user’s computer, which allows it to be identified so that only data intended for an authorised user is sent to that user.
Technically, a cookie is a piece of code passed between your browser and a website’s server when your browser connects to a website using the http process. The cookie is stored on your computer the first time you visit the site and then passed from your computer to the website’s server, which then determines the identity of your computer.
A website, such as a banking site, has a legitimate need to have cookies on its site to assist with verifying a user for log-on and financial transactions. But the website may also have cookies that belong to third-party organisations, such as marketers and advertisers, that will also be installed on the user’s computer. These cookies can collect data on the websites that a user is visiting and then direct relevant advertising to that user. If the user visits shopping sites, it may serve up ads for other online shopping or auction sites, for example. If the user visits technology news sites and product review sites, the user may be then shown sites from technology retailers.
Not all cookies are created equal. In itself, a cookie is just an application, it’s just that how they’re set to work can determine if they have a positive purpose or can be used as a way to undermine the safety of the user.
- Short-term cookies or session cookies last for as long as someone is using a site while logged in. These are the type used for banking transactions and can store details for making payments, storing shopping baskets and viewing balances. When a user logs out of the site, the session is finished and the information is no longer held by the website.
- Long-term or persistent cookies last longer than a single browsing session. They have many uses and can make returning to websites a better experience because they retain a user’s settings. A persistent cookie, for example, can retain a language preference for a website or recognise that someone has already registered for a site and automatically prompt them to log in when they get to the website.
- Tracking cookies are persistent cookies that have a long timeline for expiry that can be used to keep track of where else a user goes on the internet. Privacy advocates have raised concerns about the information that can be gathered about internet-browsing habits because they belong to third-party companies, such as advertisers, and collect data on what websites you visit beyond the original website.