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Are Internet Cookies Dangerous?

Matt Enger |

If you’ve ever been online, you’ll probably have noticed one of those odd little pop-up messages that arrive unannounced, asking something like: ‘Do you want to accept cookies?’

At first glance, this question may seem a little odd. What on earth is the e-version of a cookie, after all – and how does it relate to your online experience? 

Of course, the term ‘cookie’ is just a figure of speech. What’s quaintly known as a ‘cookie’ is simply an electronic symbol that you’ve paid a visit to a certain website. It means that the site you’re visiting is keeping track of your visit, so the folks running it can collect data on the number of visitors they have. 

Hey, hang on, I hear you say – how could this seemingly harmless practice be dangerous?

To answer that, let’s review what a cookie does. It’s a way for a company to keep track of whether you’ve visited their site. (Doing this lets them collect data on their customers.) 

It’s important not to blow this risk out of proportion. In most cases, you’ll trust a website you’re visiting enough to accept one of their cookies. 

But there are circumstances where you might want to be a tad wary of letting a random website leave a cookie (or a pile of them) on your computer. Think of those times when you’re visiting a site, which redirects you to another site, which redirects you to another site… 

And before you know it, you’re lost in the thickets of an online jungle, wading through shark-infested lagoons with no compass and only a rusty knife clasped between your teeth for protection.

(Metaphorically speaking, of course.) 

So, that dodgy site you’ve just landed on which is telling you to sign up for their online poker tournament? Trusting them to leave cookies on your computer is a bit like trusting your teenager to take your mint-condition 1962 Ferrari GTO for a spin and bring it back in one piece. 

Fortunately, it’s not as bad as it may sound. 

A cookie from a dodgy site can’t actually bring down your PC, because cookies don’t work like that. Which means that accidentally accepting a cookie from Dodgy Bros. Pty Ltd won’t lead to your computer being possessed by the Virus from Hell. 

But even though a cookie from a disreputable site won’t throw a wrench into your computer, there’s still that not-so-little matter of protecting your own privacy. 

Think of each cookie as a miniature private investigator (complete with tiny trenchcoat and fedora),   scanning every single e-move you make, every e-breath you take. 

This isn’t usually a problem – but sometimes, you might not want every single one of your electronic footsteps plastered up in lights for everyone to find if they go looking for it … 

Or worse, a bunch of advertising goons using this juicy info to flog you every two-bit product under the sun.   

With surveillance, after all, you canhave too much of a good thing. 

This might explain why you keep getting all those full-on messages when you click on a site – ‘This website uses cookies. Press “OK” if you’d like to sell your soul’. (OK, I’m paraphrasing.) 

The key is to be judicious about which sites you visit. Now, a cookie won’tgive you an infamous ‘malware’ or ‘trojan’ virus, which could cause havoc when let loose in your computer’s tender insides. 

But you still don’t want shady characters relentlessly tracking your footsteps for advertising purposes. (After all, there’s only so many steak knives you need.)     

What should I do? 

Here’s the good news.

In most cases, cookies are nothing to worry about. Like those biscuit crumbs Hansel and Gretel leave in the forest on their way to the witch’s house in the fairy tale, cookies simply leave a trail on your computer to signal where you’ve been.

But as with all clever innovations, a few unscrupulous operators can ruin things for everyone by grabbing snippets of information.    

So, what can you do to protect yourself from that one dodgy cookie in the jar?

First
Keep things in perspective by understanding whymost cookies are there in the first place. They’re not to spy on you, exactly – they’re just to make sure the company you’re visiting can keep track of visitors. 

Second
Remember you’ve got the power to reject cookies before visiting a site – because you’ll always have the option to choose whether you want them on your computer. So if you’re not in the mood to leave a record of your visit, it’s simple. Just turn down the offer of a cookie, and you’ll be waved straight through.

Third
Remember that the cookies left on your computer aren’t permanent. To get rid of them, just find your browser’s ‘clear browsing data’ option and hit it. Job done. So, while cookies can occasionally be a pain in the digital behind, they’re not a huge threat. Keeping your wits about you online will go a long way towards making your experience with cookies a safe, enjoyable and delicious one.