The Role of Cookies in Data Collection, and What Your Privacy Concerns Should Be

Blocksurvey blog author
Written by Sarah Ludwig
Dec 12, 2023 · 3 mins read

We've all seen those little windows pop up on our screen asking us if we will accept a site's cookies. Most of us just rush to accept them in order to get them out of the way and get on with our business. We then end up shocked and creeped out by the fact that the sweater we were just admiring suddenly popped up on our Facebook page. And our email. And our Yahoo! newsfeed.

What exactly are these creepy little pests? Are they something we should be legitimately worried about? Are they an indication of even more private information that the IT gods have about us? And most importantly, can we get rid of them if we want to?

If you are really concerned about your Mac getting clogged up, you can always give it a complete cleanup. If you receive a message saying that your system has run out of application memory, you might want to employ a tool that will help clear it out for you. You can click here to learn more about this process.

Now, let's take a look at some basic information about cookies, the purpose they are intended to serve, and why you may or may not have legitimate reason to be concerned about them.

cookies privacy data collection

What are cookies?

Cookies are text files that contain small pieces of data and can identify a given computer as being part of a network. HTTP cookies are the ones that you choose to accept (or not) when you go to sites that want to track your usage.

The purpose of cookies is to identify your user preferences in order to improve and personalize your web browsing experience. The fact is, many of us have eventually bought that sweater when we saw it in front of us enough times. And probably others like it, too.

So, cookies are not inherently harmful. In fact, their primary purpose is a good one: Sites using them want to make the experience of using the Internet better for people. Cookies serve practical purposes like retaining login information and keeping saved items in a shopping cart. They can be annoying (and creepy), but they do not have a fundamentally malicious purpose.

Spying and related concerns

Problems arise when cookies are misused. One of the major concerns that people have is that hackers will get access to their systems and steal their information. Cookies can be hijacked, and this can create dangerous situations: If hackers have access to your data, of course, they can theoretically do anything they want with it.

Cookies come in different forms

There are different kinds of cookies that are attached to websites. First-party cookies are cookies that are created and used by a site itself; by the site's own admins for internal purposes. They are generally harmless unless the site is somehow inherently suspicious in nature.

Third-party cookies are cookies that are used by advertisers and appear on sites but are not fundamentally part of them. These are somewhat more potentially problematic as each of the advertising companies appearing on any given page can attach its own cookies to the site without the viewer's knowledge. Therefore, if you happen to end up on a site that has a lot of ads on it, you could be exposing yourself to many different cookies scooping up your data.

Third-party cookies can actually collect more data than we realize. In addition to buyer preferences, cookies can track such things as search requests, the amount of time you spend on any given page, the number of times you visit different pages, etc. They can determine your age, income, and other things that many people do not want publicly known. Ultimately, they can provide a great deal of information about you.

How can you block or eliminate cookies?

Delete existing cookies

There are several ways to deal with this. If you already have cookies built up in your system, you can get rid of them. In addition to being a potential security threat, they could clog your computer and prevent it from functioning normally. You might also be getting unwanted ads that would cease to appear if you eliminated the cookies that led to them. To delete your existing cookies, all you have to do is go to your history and choose "clear browsing data."

You should keep in mind, of course, that clearing your cache will eliminate passwords, recently browsed sites, etc., so you should be sure you have a way of getting back to everything you need before you do it. But it is recommended that you clear your cache on a regular basis, both for the purpose of keeping your system running smoothly, and also making sure that nothing unwanted creeps in.

Block cookies in advance

There are also ways to prevent cookies from appearing entirely. If you use Chrome, for example, you can simply go to your settings and click on "Privacy and Security," which will lead you to the option of allowing or blocking cookies.

This process carries risks, though, because if you completely block cookies from your computer then some of the sites you attempt to look at might not function normally. So you should proceed with caution before making major changes to your settings, and keep in mind that if information you need suddenly starts disappearing, this could be a reason for it.

How much should you really be worried?

Perhaps the most practical question you should be asking is just how big of a risk the use of cookies really carries. Some people easily get spooked by the prospect of their personal information floating around in cyberspace. But are we generally at that great of a risk when we simply browse standard websites?

Well, as mentioned above, there is little risk involved in accepting first-party cookies. These cookies are stored and used by the sites that you choose to visit for the purpose of those sites' own data analysis.

With third-party cookies, the main risk is that you will start getting unwanted ads and pop-ups. This is not to suggest that more serious things couldn't possibly happen, but the danger is not as great as some sources make it out to be.

If you are fiercely protective of your personal data, you should take the above-mentioned steps and block cookies preventatively. But you should also keep in mind that it is very difficult to live a completely private life these days. Everywhere you go, there are cameras on the streets and surveillance systems all around. To some extent, you have to learn to ignore invasive technologies if you want to live a normal life. People who try to forbid others from allowing their children's photos on Facebook, for example, are fighting a losing battle.

Proceed with caution, but not too much

In short, the main point is that you should simply act within reason. Stay aware of the risks, of course, and do remember to clear your cache on a regular basis. If you're particularly concerned about certain information getting out, you might consider preventatively blocking cookies on your browser. But just remember that this won't solve all your privacy concerns in life. Using a privacy-focused search engine can further enhance your online privacy, as it avoids tracking and storing your search data, providing an additional layer of protection against invasive online tracking practices.

The Role of Cookies in Data Collection, and What Your Privacy Concerns Should Be FAQ

What is a cookie?

A cookie is a small piece of data that is stored on a user's computer after they visit a website. It is used to store information about the user's browsing activities, such as their username, preferences, and other information. Cookies can be used to track user activity, allowing websites to customize their services to better suit the user's needs.

How do cookies work?

When a user visits a website, the website sends a cookie to the user's browser. The cookie is stored on the user's computer and is used to track the user's activity on the website. This information is then used by the website to customize the content and services they provide to the user.

What information do cookies collect?

Cookies can collect a variety of information, including the user's username, preferences, and browsing activities. This information is then used to customize the website's content and services for the user.

Is it safe to use cookies?

Yes, it is generally safe to use cookies. Cookies are encrypted, so the information stored in them is secure. However, it is important to be aware of the risks associated with cookies. For example, cookies can be used to track user activity and can be used by malicious actors to gain access to sensitive information.

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blog author description

Sarah Ludwig

Sarah Ludwig is an American freelance writer. She has been living and working in the former Soviet Union for over 20 years and her writing includes tech, finance, and marketing.


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