What are Cookies and Should You Accept Them?

For the last couple of years, wherever you go on the internet, you find an annoying pop-up informing you about cookies. Here’s what this pop-up means, and here are the real consequences of your decision to accept or not accept cookies.

What are cookies?

Cookies are tiny text files containing data related to you — for example, who you are and what you did on a specific website. When a website wants to ‘remember’ you and show you something that’s relevant to you next time you visit, the site can ask your browser if it’s okay to leave a cookie.

Cookies are stored on your computer or phone and can only be accessed by the sites that put those cookies there. For example, if Facebook gave your browser a cookie containing your login token, then only Facebook can read that token from your browser.

So, is a cookie like a program?

No, cookies are just files with text. They can be read easily, but they cannot be executed. Cookies don’t do anything; they just sit and wait to be read.

Some cookies are set to expire. For example, Facebook could set a cookie to recognize you when you come back to their site, and that cookie might live for a month. If you don’t come back within a month, the cookie will expire, and you’ll have to log into Facebook again.

Other cookies are set to live forever. For example, Amazon might want to store your email in a cookie so that you only have to type in your password when you’re ready to shop. There is no need to have that cookie expire because your account is protected by a password.

What does it mean when a site uses cookies?

This means that the site stores some data about you on your computer — for example, your login ID, your shopping history, or your favorite categories of NSFW content. When you come back, that site will recognize you and show you content you’re likely to be interested in.

As such, cookies are not violating your privacy: all information about you is stored on your computer.

Sites can also store copies of that information in their databases. However, cookies have nothing to do with that.

Do cookies eat up my memory?

A cookie cannot exceed 4 KB, which is negligible compared to the power of today’s machines. This page alone is at least 400 KB. So, practically speaking, no: cookies do not eat up your memory.

Do sites track us with cookies?

Sure. Cookies are part of tracking: they allow the site to know that you are you when you come back.

So, disabling cookies will disable all tracking?

Oh no. There are dozens of ways to track you online even with cookies turned off, and they all work. Here’s a taste of what’s out there when it comes to tracking:

● URL injections — when tracking data sits right inside your links and web addresses

● Hidden form fields — it’s possible to hide tracking data inside forms so that no one notices

● Localstorage and caching — these two areas in your browser’s memory allow sites and scripts to store data about you

● Even your browser size and screen size can help track you. Yes, even when you browse in incognito mode, there are still ways to track you

● Not to mention ad tracking and Facebook’s social widgets that track you wherever you go

So no, disabling or clearing cookies will not disable tracking. Only avoiding the internet altogether will get you all clear of internet tracking. (Nevertheless, there will still be other kinds of tracking.)

But still, can I disable cookies?

Sure. Go to the privacy settings in your browser, and either tell it to clear all current cookies, or to stop accepting cookies altogether.

If you are very security conscious, you can also disable JavaScript while you’re at it — most tracking algorithms rely on JavaScript.

And what happens if I get rid of them?

With cookies cleared or disabled, you’ll have to log into every site you visit. But only if a site supports cookie-free operation.

Some sites rely on cookies so heavily, you won’t be able to get past the homepage: they’ll request cookies repeatedly and, if this request fails, display an error. Consider this:

On some sites, loading every page requires a cookie. For example, if you want to browse your Amazon account history, you’ll need to provide a cookie every time you load a page — cookies ensure that you are you, and nobody else has access to your shopping history and credit card information. So, if you have no cookies on your machine, there’s no way to show Amazon that you are you.

In short: life on the internet is quite problematic without cookies. And you still get tracked.

Can I just leave cookies as they are?

Sure. Most people just relax and go about their day with cookies and tracking enabled.

Remember that most ‘everyday’ types of tracking, such as cookies, are designed to sell us more relevant goods. Most internet companies don’t care about our identity — they just want to figure us out to show us more relevant ads. And more relevant ads are typically better than less relevant ads.

As for the government tracking our online presence, that’s something that nearly every government is doing now anyway. Disabling cookies can’t prevent it from happening.

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