Cookie-ology: What are cookies and how are they used?

Cookie-ology: What are cookies and how are they used?

In this digital age, your online activity can be tracked almost everywhere. Unless you’re browsing in incognito mode or using private browsing, most websites are tracking your activity and monitoring your behavior. That’s why it’s crucial to understand what these cookies are and how they work. This knowledge can help you take control of your personal information and maximize your privacy protection.

What exactly are cookies?

Cookies are small text files that websites store on your computer or mobile device. They ease navigation by remembering data such as your username, password, and other site preferences. They serve various purposes, from storing login data to creating tracking profiles for marketing purposes. The Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) categorizes them as follows:

  • By administrator: We have first-party (managed by the website’s webmaster) and third-party (managed by someone besides the website owner, either for analytical purposes or otherwise).
  • By lifespan: We can differentiate between session (which record data only while the user navigates the site and then are deleted) and persistent (which collect data for a period defined by the website administrator).
  • By functionality: We have technical (monitoring traffic and extracting information), personalization (creating a tailored experience like setting the language), analysis (recording data to understand visitor behavior and set user profiles), and advertising (promoting products or services).

But why are cookies so essential?

Cookies are vital for the Internet’s functioning. They allow websites to store information on your computer, enhancing your browsing experience. Without them, online navigation would be much more challenging, or even impossible.

Cookies are essential for the Internet’s usability. They can track your online activities for marketing or advertising, but they also store your preferences, login credentials, and autofill fields.

How to comply with current legislation

Cookies on websites are governed by data protection laws. It’s imperative to understand the legislation’s key elements to ensure your website is compliant and avoid unnecessary fines.

Current legal regulations impose two obligations: a website must provide users with information about the cookies it uses and how they’re utilized. Moreover, it must obtain user consent for their use.

Though most CMS have plugins designed to comply with this legislation, sometimes it’s worth double-checking to ensure the plugin is correctly set up for your specific website.

For more information, the AEPD provides a Comprehensive guide on cookies and their use on websites.

Transparency – What information should I display?

This information should be clearly visible under the name Cookie Policy and should provide a straightforward overview, including:

  • Site’s administrator.
  • The purpose of the cookies (whether they are first-party or third-party).
  • Data being collected.
  • How to accept or reject cookies.
  • A link to a section with more detailed information.

This secondary layer of information should answer the following questions:

  • What are cookies and their purpose?
  • Which cookies are used and why?
  • Who uses these cookies?
  • How to accept or reject these cookies?
  • Is data transferred to third parties?
  • Are automated profiles created with these cookies?
  • How long are different cookies stored?

The regulations state that consent must be explicitly obtained through an “Accept” button or something similar, after notifying users about the processing and use of cookies on the website (this consent must be both freely given and informed).

Not all of them require this consent, although it’s still advisable to inform users about them. This applies especially if their lifespan is as short as possible for their intended purpose, or if they’re deleted within a very brief period. Some of these cookies would include those used for user authentication during a session or for interface customization.

Tools to verify compliance

If you’re unaware of the cookies your website uses, here are some online tools to help you comply with current legislation:

Cookieserve: Identifies the exact cookies your website uses.

Cookiebot: Find out what data your website collects and shares with third parties, and check if your site’s cookie usage complies with current regulations.

How to block or delete cookies?

While many cookies are harmless and even useful, some can invade your privacy, track your online activities, store sensitive information about you, or monitor your browsing history.

As mentioned, any website targeting EU users must offer an option to accept or reject these cookies. However, not all require this consent. In such cases, you can choose to disable or delete them through your browser settings. Each browser has a different configuration for this, and many offer various privacy extensions to protect your privacy and block unwanted cookies from untrusted websites.

Now that you’re familiar with cookies and their functionality, the ball’s in your court. You can decide to block them and experience the Internet in a non-traditional way, or accept and use them to your advantage.