What do website cookies actually do?

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.

Kaitlyn Simpson

Let’s say you really want a new pair of boots this season. Filled with excitement, you hit up your favourite online store. But right before you get a chance to browse, a window pops up asking you to accept so-called ‘cookies’ to move forward.

You click the ‘Accept’ button without much thought and continue along. A couple clicks later, a couple websites later, and you’ve hit “‘accept cookies”’ several more times. Sound familiar? We’re all guilty of this, don’t worry.

The use of website cookies is ubiquitous now. It’s nearly impossible to surf the web without running into them. But despite how pervasive they are, it can be challenging to understand their purpose, their hiding spots, and their functions. Fear not, fellow Internetter! This guide offers you everything you need to know about cookies and how to best protect yourself when you come across them.

What are cookies anyway?

The best kind of cookies are gooey, baked and go well with a tall glass of milk. But the cookies we’re talking about are (much less delicious) files that track your internet activity.

When you hit ‘Accept’ on a website, you’ve given the cookie permission to save itself onto your device (a phone, laptop, tablet, or desktop). Once saved, they hang out in the background, gathering information like records of the websites you visit and your activities on them.

While cookies come in all different shapes and sizes, there are two main types to be aware of: "first-party cookies" are made by the website you are visiting, while “third-party cookies” are developed by companies external to the site.

What are cookies used for?

Companies that use first-party cookies justify their use by saying it helps them make your user experience smoother, and conduct research to make their products better.

Let’s get back to our online shopping example. First-party cookies could help an online store remember those boots in your shopping cart, even if you decide to exit the tab and reopen it later. In this case, cookies are a way of remembering your shopping activities.

Some companies argue cookies are also used for security, as a form of authenticating the correct user when logging into an online account. By learning your digital behaviour and information, cookies may help companies spot when others are trying to imitate you.

Third-party cookies, however, track your activity and deliver you targeted advertisements. Often, they are linked to specific ads on a website. This means that a site with five different ad spots could have five unique third-party cookies. So instead of remembering that those boots are in your cart, a third-party cookie would track your movement across websites, determine you’re interested in purchasing boots, and serve ads for its own product.

What information do cookies collect, and why?

Cookies make for convenient web browsing, but can come at the cost of your privacy. It’s important to understand the data they collect, and determine if you actually need them for each online experience.

An important note: Cookies do not collect offline information from your device. This means they will not be accessing any of your text messages, contacts, or cat photos.They do collect data about your online activities. This could include your login information, location, settings, advertisements you've seen, pages and products you've viewed, the amount of time you spend on a website, and more.  Phew! That’s a lot. This information creates a picture of your personal browsing trends and behaviour— something companies use to deliver ads targeted to you.

Should I accept cookies on websites?

It depends!

Cookies aren't always bad. And some companies block you from using their website until you accept them. In other cases, blocking cookies may impact your experience on a site, like needing to re-enter your password every time you visit. Other cookies— especially third-party ones!— can be invasive and unnecessary. After all, they collect more information than needed when you’re trying to order a pair of boots.

Do your research when determining what cookies to accept or reject. If available, check a website’s privacy policy for information on their use of cookies. The New York Times, for example, has a Cookie Policy with detailed information on how they use cookies. Social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter also have cookie policies.

If a website is not transparent about its use of cookies, this could be a red flag that they don't have your privacy top-of-mind.

When making any digital privacy decision, reflect on how much information you are comfortable sharing. Accepting or rejecting cookies is an individual choice— one that you'll consider moving forward as you travel around the Internet.

How to manage your cookies

One last thing before you go. It’s good practice to regularly check your cookies and delete those that aren’t serving you any more. This process is easy once you get the hang of it. Open your browser, navigate to its settings, and find the privacy tab where your active cookies are listed. Most browsers (like Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge) allow you to clear all cookies or sort through them.

Cookies are not the only way your online activities are tracked, they are one piece of the puzzle in safeguarding your digital privacy. But they are an important piece nonetheless, so think twice next time you have the urge to hit that ‘Accept’’ button!

A Black man in a white sweater smiles at the camera, against a bright yellow background.

Come here often? Get Memo in your inbox.