If you've ever wondered how websites remember your login details, or how items in your online shopping cart stay there while you shop, it's not magic. It's actually all down to tiny strands of data called cookies.

There are many types of cookies, including cookies that:

  • Save your password(s) so you don't need to remember them whenever you visit websites

  • Remember what sites you've visited in the past so you can view your browser history

  • Keep track of your shopping cart as you browse an online store

  • Show you targeted ads based on your browsing behavior

  • Verify user login details

We'll look at consent later, but for now, just bear in mind that most websites use cookies and it's important that they tell you so. They should alert you to cookie usage as soon as you land on the website, and it should be clear where you can find further information about their Cookie Policy.

Remember - you have the right to control what data you share with retailers, companies, and other third parties, and what cookies they install in your browser. Some pieces of legislation, like the EU's ePrivacy Directive, give you very specific rights over personal data sharing through cookies - more on all this below.

There are a number of advantages to using cookies, but here are a few that stand out:

  • They remember your preferences, so you'll only typically see ads that are relevant to you

  • They save your passwords and usernames so there's no need for you to remember these details when you log onto different websites

  • Once you know where to find them, they're easy to delete and control - more on that below

  • Cookies remember your browsing behavior, so you'll often see search results that are most relevant to you when you're using Google or other search engines.

Just like there are advantages to accepting cookies, there are also a few drawbacks. The main ones you should be aware of are:

  • It's sometimes possible for third parties to access information stored by cookies, which raises obvious privacy concerns

  • You may feel like someone is watching you as you're browsing the internet, which understandably makes some feel uncomfortable

  • If you don't know where to look, it can be difficult to find cookies and delete them

  • Some viruses may be disguised as cookies, and in other cases, cookies recreate themselves after they've been deleted - these are colloquially known as "zombie" cookies

  • What's important is that you understand how cookies actually work and how you can take control of your internet privacy. Without getting too technical, let's be clear on what cookies are, what types of cookies are out there, and how each type of cookie gathers various bits of information about you, your computer, and your browsing history.

An Introduction to Cookies

Let's get back to basics. Cookies, in their simplest form, are little clusters of data. A web server passes these data clusters through to your computer after you've landed on a website. Your computer then stores the data as files inside your browser cache. It's less complicated than it sounds, so to illustrate, here's how it works:

You visit a website

The web server passes a short message along to your web browser

The browser saves this message in a file titled something like "cookie.txt"

You click on another website page (for example, a shop category)

Your browser sends a short message "back" to the server that reveals a little more about what you're looking at

Let's look at an example. Say you visit the popular healthcare website, NetDoctor. Once you land on the homepage, a box pops up that tells you about the website's Cookie Policy:

If you click off this box and browse the website, it'll install cookies on your browser, and your browser sends a message back about what you're on looking at - for example, cold remedies.

If you're still a little confused, think of this whole process like a text message exchange between two parties - the server, and your browser.

Now we're clear on how cookies end up in your device : )

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What are Cookies