Cookies Aren’t the Monster

Cookies are delicious, but Internet cookies can cause concern for computer users who don’t necessarily understand what they are or what they do. It’s a common misconception that Internet cookies can cause viruses (they don’t) or can place malware on computers (they can’t).

They are, however, one of the key pieces that make cookie-based programmatic advertising possible, so it’s worth knowing a little bit more about them.

What are internet (web browser) cookies?

Cookies (named after a Unix program called Fortune Cookie, according to Indiana University) are small files placed on computers after a user visits a website. The first cookie might have been created for one of the first virtual shopping carts in 1994. Typically, the cookie remembers information that makes it easier to access the website quicker in subsequent visits.

When you visit a vendor online and the website remembers the last item you almost bought and keeps it in your virtual shopping cart, that’s cookies at work. When a website remembers your viewing preferences from previous visits, that’s also cookies. In this respect, cookies can be helpful, allowing websites to load faster and remember information from previous visits for a personalized experience.

Tracking cookies allow information to be accessed by advertisers, potentially across multiple sites. The advertisers embed the cookies in an ad message on one website, so when the user clicks on another ad from the same advertiser on another website, the cookie recognizes the user and may store this information within the advertiser’s database.

Multiple cookies compiled together can give advertisers valuable insight into the preferences of Internet users. This is how most programmatic advertising works. Data Management Platforms (DMPs) aggregate the information from these cookies to help model and target by behavior, content, and interest, to name a few.

The Federal Trade Commission classifies cookies by two categories:

  • Single-session cookies: These are used to provide a faster website experience and are erased once the browser is closed.
  • Multi-session cookies: These may or may not collect data and must be manually deleted from a computer’s hard drive.

Cookies are not viruses or malware

Cookies do not place viruses or malware on computers – they don’t have the capability. Nor can cookies pull sensitive information out of the files of your computer – they can only remember information you supply on a website.

Cookies cannot “hide” from a computer user, particularly when the user sets his or her browser preferences to not allow cookies from websites. Seeing and deleting cookies is relatively simple, depending upon the Internet browser used (here are detailed directions based on browser).

Fingerprinting – The New Cookie?

Cookies continue to alarm Internet users who may not fully understand the technology. Fingerprinting is the upcoming technology that may replace (or augment) the work of cookies to help advertisers better understand online consumers. Fingerprinting allows a website to “study” a user’s computer, gaining information including software installed or even the size of the screen, says Forbes. This technology persists even if users delete their cookies.

The technology that allows advertisers to better understand their potential clients is ever-evolving. Advertisers must be careful to use this technology in a way that does not leave users feeling as though their privacy has been invaded.