Website Cookies: Should You Be Concerned?
October 23rd, 2019 by
What Is a Cookie?
A cookie is a small text file that stores a unique ID placed on your computer by an advertiser or publisher to help them keep track of your usage and behavior.
Why Am I Suddenly Hearing so Much About Cookies?
Recently, there has been a lot of legislation around privacy on the internet. The first example of this is the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
More recently, California has gotten into the act with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).
The impact of the CCPA is not as widely known, but the GDPR calls for disclosure and consumer control of tracking information placed on a user’s computer.
In essence, a website owner or publisher has to give the user an opportunity to review and/or opt-out of tracking cookies.Expect this trend to grow as more governments express concern over the use of user data.
What Are Cookies Used For?
Cookies are used to keep track of your usage of websites and your interaction with advertising.
Most people are familiar with the phenomenon where they look at a pair of shoes in an online store and then those shoes follow them around the internet. This is called “retargeting” or “remarketing.”
Cookies are also used to store usernames, passwords, and other information for websites you visit frequently.
And, cookies allow website managers to understand the way you are using their website so they can better tailor their content to you and future users. An example of this is the cookie that gets set by Google Analytics, the most popular analytics package on the internet.
So, cookies are potentially really useful if you like to see ads tailored to your interests, or if you don’t like having to re-enter all your information on websites.
Beyond targeted advertising, cookies can start to tell a lot about you as an internet user. Do you prefer Nike or Adidas; Ford or Volvo; Gucci or the Gap?
Should I Be Worried About My Privacy?
First, you should accept that privacy in this day and age is a comforting illusion. Just kidding. No really, I’m not kidding—there is no privacy on the internet.
Most cookie usage is completely benign and, in many cases, helpful. Like any technology, cookies can be used for good and evil. And, most cookies are used in aggregate form such that your personally identifiable information is not available.
Examples of negative cookie usage:
- Excluding certain demographic groups from finance and housing offers—which is illegal.
- Showing hateful political ads to groups known for a propensity to violence—which should be illegal if it’s not already.
By your interactions with various websites and advertisers, you are sharing a lot of information. If used legally, it is not necessarily personally identifiable.
If you are the type to take online surveys or play online sweepstakes, or even give up your email address for a 20% off coupon, you are now connecting the real you to the virtual you. You are giving up your privacy in exchange for some value.
Websites with access to particularly sensitive data, like doctors and hospitals, have very strict rules about personally identifiable information and its use, dictated by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996).
With enough distinct data points, it’s possible to get pretty close to identifying you individually. And you can easily imagine how once credit card data gets into the mix, you can tie humans out in the world, driving around and buying stuff to website visitors.
Credit card companies are already selling your data. One of the biggest data aggregators, Acxiom, maintains a website where you can see all they know about you. It’s currently down for revision, but when it’s back up you can go to https://aboutthedata.com to see all the details.
They know what cars you drive, what you paid for your house, and how much debt you have. It’s a lot of potentially scary information.
So if you’re prone to worrying about your privacy, yes, you should worry. In the general case, however, you don’t have much to fear.
How Can I Keep Myself Safe?
If you are supplying private information like health or financial information, make sure the site you are using is secure. You can tell a website is secure because it will have a small lock in the address bar next to the website address.
If you’re really browsing where you don’t want to be tracked, you can use the private browsing mode enabled by your web browser.
In Google Chrome, this is called “incognito mode.” In the Safari browser from Apple, it’s called a “private window.”
These modes are intended to not store any cookies beyond your current session and should provide a firewall between your existing cookies and the sites you visit.
The Future of Online Tracking
Today, an advertiser can buy ads that connect with you on computer, mobile phone, or even a billboard you drive by.
The personalized billboards of the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report” are not far off.
Fortunately, governments the world over are starting to legislate data use. It is hard for governments to move as quickly as technology entrepreneurs, but GDPR and other similar regulations will keep the good actors in line.
But listen, be smart! Just like you wouldn’t want to leave your wallet on a park bench, you don’t want to go giving up all sorts of private information to anyone who asks for it online.
If you don’t trust a site or it is not secure, don’t give it personal or financial information. Think twice about whether that 20% discount is worth the information you have to give up.
Advertisers and website publishers will continue to innovate to get closer to you as a customer This is a good thing if done appropriately.
Some simple steps on your part can keep you as safe online as you are in the comfort of your own home.
If you own a website and are concerned about the legality of cookies, the digital marketing experts at Search Influence can help. Start a conversation today.