Why You Should Care About Cookies And What It Means For Your Data Privacy

Thursday, March 11, 2021

I’m sure you’ve heard of cookies, but have you ever wondered what cookies are and what they do? Or how this really affects you?

Cookies are essentially simple text files that websites use to store information about your interactions and behaviours on their site. When you visit a website, it sends a cookie from its server to your browser where the cookie gets stored on your device. That site, or a third-party, can use your behaviours and personal information to build a profile and target their advertising more accurately.

This may seem fairly innocent at first glance. Maybe you’re thinking that it doesn’t really bother you. But there are many reasons why you should care about cookies and how they threaten your data privacy.

In the wrong hands, data can do a lot of damage.

Invasion of Privacy

Most browsers are set to accept cookies by default without your consent. Every time you use the internet your browsing history and IP address become public knowledge and presents a real threat to your online privacy. While there are regulations in place, websites can still gain a lot of personal information from you through cookies. They can access your personally identifiable information (PII), your name, date of birth, address, social security number, phone numbers and more. They can even see the searches you perform, the websites you visit, the articles you read and what you buy online. Private information is valuable and opens you up to an unlimited number of risks.

They Pose a Security Threat

History has shown that hackers can potentially abuse cookies, gaining access to your social networks and stealing personal data like names, email addresses, dates of birth, passwords and even your security questions and answers. Everything they need to commit identity theft. They can then do any number of things in your name, including opening new credit accounts, filing a fraudulent tax return, committing other forms of fraud and more. In the wrong hands, data can do a lot of damage.

Unauthorized Data Collection

Websites sell your personal information collected from cookies to third parties for marketing benefits. Sites like Google, Facebook and Twitter collect vast amounts of data on visitors in order to deliver on the promise that advertisers will be able to use that data to target buyers. Advertisers and marketers thrive on third-party data for pinpointing their target audience, which means your personal information and online behaviors are being sold for their benefit. This type of hyper-targeted advertising has serious social impacts. Advertisers can detect those who are the most isolated, mentally ill or vulnerable and then use that data to their advantage. While you may be happy for a website to offer you a customised user experience on their own platform, there is a possibility that the other party's collecting or buying your data have ulterior motives for your personal data. When profit is the goal and your privacy is a secondary concern, users have to find ways to protect themselves.

So, how can you protect your personal information and data privacy?

  • You can start by logging out of sessions and clearing your cookies regularly.
  • You can set your browser to delete cookies automatically at the end of each browsing session.
  • Since third-party cookies are being phased out, you can find privacy-friendly search engines to use instead.
  • There is also a “Private" mode (for Safari or Firefox) or “Incognito” (for Chrome). Browsing this way doesn't keep your internet service provider from knowing what you're doing, but it does keep cookies from working.

That being said, cookies can have some benefits if used in a privacy friendly way. It can help improve your user experience, for example if you are a returning customer to a website or saving your preferences like language, logins and what’s in your cart. Turning internet cookies off permanently would make navigation on certain websites difficult since they require cookies. However, by limiting tracking cookies, this will help protect your privacy and personal information.

Are you taking any of these protective steps already?

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