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Ben there, done that

Digital cookies: not a tasty snack

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Have you ever been surfing the internet and seen ads or pop-ups that seem a bit too familiar for things you were just looking at, that know your name, or where you are? Don’t be freaked out, the NSA or the Russians are not spying on you (probably). These ads are just using a fascinating piece of web technology called a cookie. 

Despite its sweet-sounding name, a cookie is a small string of data that a site stores on your web browser. These cookies are what allow a website to remember you and pick up where you left off. Without them, you would have to sign-in every time you want to check your email and no online shop would be able to save your shopping cart. This was the original intention the creator of cookies, Lou Montulli, had in mind. 

In the summer of 1994, while working for Netscape, Lou began to work on the problem of bringing memory to the web. In the early days of the internet, every time a visitor came to a website, the site had no way of knowing who you were and if you had been there before. Even the act of switching between pages would cause a website to forget who you were. Imagine every time you switched pages on Facebook having to log in all over again. To fix this problem, Lou designed a system where websites could leave little bits of data on your web browser like bread crumbs from the famous fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” Cookies can store all kinds of data like time spent, clicks, shopping carts, input fields, and many other points of information about you. The original intention behind these cookies was to allow a website to remember you. However, soon others saw a whole new potential with cookies.

Every site you visit online can see all the cookies that you have collected. This became a huge deal in the online advertising world. Soon services like Google AdSense were using cookies as a way to keep tabs on users and use that information to serve ads that are much more specific to you. Sites give predefined space on their websites to a service like Google AdSense in exchange for a share of the money generated every time a user clicks on an ad. When a user goes to a page, Google AdSense looks at the cookies on the user’s browser and then compares it with the potential ads it can display to find which ads most closely match up with you. This all happens in milliseconds as the page is loading, and by the time the page has materialized on your screen the ads are there. While one might feel violated by this perceived invasion of online privacy, there is something that can be done to minimize the impact. 

The easiest thing to do is use adblocking extensions. These little bits of software are installed on your browser. They are capable of identifying ads and blocking them from showing up as the page is loading. While they don’t fully stop information from being gathered, they do remove a large portion of the advertisements that are a result of it. In this way, they are more of a symptom control than a complete solution These extensions are free, easy to find with a simple web search and often can be installed with a single click.

The more complete solution is to go into the settings of your browser and clear the cache. This will wipe away all of the stored cookies that have been deposited in your browser. However, after you do this you will need to relog into any websites you have previously signed into. This is can be a real hassle and is often more trouble than it is worth, but if you want, it can fully clear out the cookies. This solution is also a temporary one and doesn’t stop your browser from continuing to collect them in the future and the process will need to be repeated.

For better or for worse, cookies are here to stay. On the one hand, they make our experience browsing the internet much more pleasant by allowing websites to remember us. On the other, this technology has been used to make the internet the largest advertising market in the world. For the most part, they are fairly benign and make our experience on the internet much better, but I do think it is important to be aware of the information they gather about us and how it is being used.

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