Connect with us

Explainers

Cookies are delicious but how much should you consume online?

Photo credit: Logrise.com 5 mins read

Unlike the gooey chocolate cookies we devour and salivate over, internet cookies are inedible (lol). 

Personally, nothing puts me off than visiting an online site and being asked to accept cookies. I always scream, what are these things called cookies and why must I accept them if I cannot eat them? And what’s worse, some sites will not allow you to view content on their page without accepting them by obstructing the page. 

What are internet cookies?

According to Kaspersky, cookies are text files with pieces of data that are used to identify your computer when you use a computer network. Some have also described it as pieces of information stored as text strings on a machine like a computer.

How do you receive cookies and how are they stored? A web server sends users a cookie which is then stored by the browser.

Internet cookies can be either direct or indirect. Direct cookies are created by the site you are visiting while indirect ones are created by sites other than the one you are visiting.

What is the point of having cookies?: The good

Eases promotion

Cookies are designed to bring ease to the web user. What it does is that it saves certain details like usernames and passwords so that when you log in later, it can use those details to make things easier. In other words, cookies act like a purse which stores information and hands it out to you whenever you need it.  This information is uniquely labeled for the user and their computer.

Cookies are meant to be used for managing sessions, personalizing user sessions, and tracking.

Managing sessions

Cookies allow websites to recognize a user and to recall their individual login information and their preferences. These preferences can be song choices, politics, interests, etc. Much like when you go to YouTube a few times and search for nursery rhymes for kids and the next time you log into Youtube, your search engine automatically assumes that that is why you are back and floods your interface with many varieties of nursery rhymes for kids.

Personalization of user sessions

Ever caught yourself being shown some ads just because you checked a website earlier? Yeah, cookies do that. Advertising can be customised for users using cookies with the hope that they may be something that may be of interest to you or that you might enjoy.

For tracking 

If you love online shopping as I do, then this is for you. Shopping sites use internet cookies to track items you previously view or purchase. This allows the site to suggest other items that you may like based on previous buys or views. These cookies also keep items in shopping carts while you and I continue shopping, otherwise, the cart would reset to zero once another item is clicked.

The not so good  (Risks associated with internet cookies) 

Although internet cookies are naturally safe and helpful to the internet user, and because they cannot transfer malware or viruses to your device we readily accept them but the truth is, cookies can be potentially dangerous.

First, some viruses and malware can be disguised as cookies. An example of this is the “zombie cookies” which can recreate itself even after being deleted. These are what I have come to call the resurrecting cookies (lol). No matter how many times you delete them, they keep coming back, thus the term “zombie cookies”. Once you accept these types of cookies, there is almost no getting away from them.  They can be used by web analytic companies to track your browsing history and a website can ban you from using their site by using these cookies.

Third-party tracking cookies can also make it easy for parties you cannot identify to keep watch on you. This can happen when you login to your activities online, like logging into your AliExpress account. Your login details can be saved for easy access on your next visit but, and this is a big but, since your activities are monitored, you have ads popping in based on items you have either looked at or searched for. These ads carry cookies. These are termed third-party cookies and these can be troublesome cookies because they are not generated by the website you are on but other sites that are linked to ads on the site you are on. Tricky? No. As you know, most websites advertise. This can be seen in strips, pop-ups or many other forms. These ads may not necessarily be content from the site you are on but other products, sites etc. Now, some of these ads have cookies attached to them which you have no knowledge of and these cookies can be automatically uploaded onto your device. What is disturbing is that you do not need to click on the ads for this to happen.

Further, in the hands of hackers, cookies can be used to hijack user sessions. Here, the hijacker pretends to be the user and performs actions that only the user has permission to perform. For shoppers like me, this is frightening. Why? Imagine someone posing as you and shopping with your details.  Or having your content deleted or malicious content being posted in your name? An example can be the recent Twitter account hijack which had accounts of Bills Gates and other famous people taken over. These are all ways your sessions can be hijacked using cookies. And that is why you will find some applications have taken to logging users out after each session or have constant reminders sent to users to always log out of sessions. 

Fourthly, cookies are actually stored on your device! As many times as you visit sites, as many of the cookies from those sites and associate sites get stored onto your hard drive. If space is a major issue for you, this is a nightmare. And if you end up having zombie cookies, you are in for some stress.

Cookies and Internet privacy in Ghana

In Ghana, privacy and personal data is directly protected under the Data Protection Act, 2012. The act establishes the Data Protection Commission (DPC) which is under the Ministry of Communications.  The commission’s role, which is to oversee the regulation of the process by which personal information is acquired, kept, used or disclosed by data controllers and data processors, is also established under the Act. 

Overall, the 1992 Constitution provides for the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms, of which privacy is one. Cookies are a potential threat to that right.

Although cookies are not specifically mentioned in the Data Protection Act, there is the prohibition to purchase, obtain or disclose personal data as found in clause 88 of the Act.  

The DPC is yet to take any enforcement action against organisations in respect to the violation of cookie restrictions. This makes it even more important for individuals to take the necessary steps to protect themselves from the possible threats of accepting cookies. 

What to do as an internet user

Baseline, BE CAREFUL. 

Also, you can protect yourself by deleting/clearing or managing cookies on your devices. To do so, follow the steps indicated in any of the suitable links below:

Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, IOS.

You can also modify your browser settings in your device’s privacy settings, Use Add-ons, personal moderation, and protect yourself with available and good quality antivirus software.

Conclusion

Although internet cookies are designed to offer ease of use to internet users, they can be potential threats in the hand of the wrong people.  Privacy is expensive and ensuring that you manage your cookies takes you one step closer to ensuring your privacy is protected.

Roselena Ahiable is a Senior Researcher with Dubawa Ghana. Roselena has years of demonstrated work experience in advertising, sales and marketing, having worked with some of the leading brands in Ghana. She has completed a Master of Philosophy programme in Communication Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon, with specialisation in Public Relations and Advertising. She has also received advanced training in print and broadcast journalism. Roselena also holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and Theatre Arts from the University of Ghana. As a trained journalist with interest in research, Roselena provides the team insight in news and media trend analysis.

Click to comment

Make a comment

More in Explainers