In the restaurant trade, a cookie is a tempting little biscuit. It costs the barista almost nothing, but makes the customer feel an instant millionaire when delivered with a cup of coffee.
On the internet, a cookie is a spyglass that enables another website to see what we are doing. At least in theory, the owner is doing us a favour by learning to understand us better without taking any of our time.
‘Look on us as your virtual butler’, the cookie industry promises. ‘When we know your behavioural preferences we can suggest the right clothes for the weather, and book a movie without even checking with you first. What is wrong with that? The ‘wrong with that’ is it potentially limits our existential freedom, and has implications for the expansion of our knowledge base.
Each time we open up a website we do not already have a cookie for, it loads a tiny text file called a first-party cookie on our computer. This remembers our preferences and exists as a default choice next time we visit. This may include automatic logins, repurposing the information we typed in forms, recalling our user name and password, and remembering the status of our shopping cart, if we decide to complete the transaction later.
This is a useful service, and relatively harmless in terms of its original intent. It can however become intrusive, if the website owner abuses the information for profit. Allow us to provide an example.
Imagine we choose to visit a mail order catalogue because we want to purchase a set of pots and pans for a friend. The mail order site places a first-party cookie on our computer, which notes the name, street address, email address, and phone number we provide. We assume it is doing so to speed up the process next time, and think nothing more about it.
The owner of the cookie now knows quite a bit about us (or our computer’s internet identity to be more precise). In the given example, this includes the personal details that we mentioned, our geospatial address, and the topic(s) of the page(s) we visited. Many websites sell this information to advertisers. We should not be surprised if the phone rings later in the day, and a telemarketer tells us about a special offer on say kitchen tools – it is rather simplified but the fact is our data has become goods to be traded.
There are three kinds of cookie people on the internet. There are people who do not mind the cookie process, and there are people who object, but not seriously enough to do something about it. We wrote this article for the third group of people that wish to opt out of cookies completely. If this sounds like you, then we offer a little hope.
Thanks to pressure from European governments, European websites have to notify users when they load cookies. If we agree, they may never ask again. If we disagree, they may refuse to admit us or limit our browsing experience. The Internet is largely free space. We often have no choice but to agree to cookies. Either way, we are ‘between a rock and a hard place’.
Most users accept the cookie which they seldom delete again. If there is an advertisement on the webpage, the chances are fair to good the advertiser, not the website owner, placed their own cookie using tracking scripts without asking permission or us even noticing. These ‘third party cookies’ are much harder to delete and this requires you to take control.
There is various way to to prevent this happening. But to make it easy for you to control what kind of cookies land on your computer without our deliberate and specific permission. Privacore will release, Privafox, a browser with fair default privacy settings within the next few months.
Would you welcome being able to browse and search in private? then sign up to get early beta access to findx – the free and private search engine