Explained | Inside the digital world of cookies 

Are there privacy concerns? Can inadequate security of cookies pose a risk to users? Which privacy regulations have had an impact on how they are used on websites? How does India’s Digital Personal Data Protection Act affect the use of cookies? What potential downside can their excessive use have?

September 28, 2023 10:38 pm | Updated September 29, 2023 09:02 am IST

Platforms like Facebook and Google use cookies to 
track online behaviour, ensuring ads users encounter align
with preferences

Platforms like Facebook and Google use cookies to  track online behaviour, ensuring ads users encounter align with preferences | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The story so far: The digital world of cookies plays a significant role in any online experience. In the digital realm, cookies help in personalisation and user convenience. These unassuming bits of code, stored on a device when one visits websites, play a pivotal role in shaping any online experience.

How do cookies work?

Think of cookies as the key to a secure, members-only club. Just like the club bouncer recognises regular patrons and grants them seamless access, cookies remember your login information on websites. This means you do not have to repeatedly enter your credentials every time you revisit a site, making it convenient for use.

On websites like Amazon, cookies remember your previous interactions; from products you have browsed to purchases you have made. Armed with this knowledge, Amazon serves up tailored product recommendations and content, making your online shopping feel like a personalised boutique experience.

Consider an enchanted grocery cart that never empties, no matter how many times you step away. Online shopping carts, fuelled by cookies, offer a similar enchantment. You can add items to your cart, leave the website, and return later to find your selections waiting patiently, ready for checkout.

Platforms like Facebook and Google use cookies to track online behaviour, ensuring the ads you encounter align with your preferences.

While cookies offer undeniable advantages, there is a flip side to considering privacy concerns and the potential for data misuse.

What are the types of cookies?

Session cookies are temporary cookies like post-it notes for websites. They are stored in your computer’s memory only during your browsing session. Once you close your browser, they vanish. Session cookies help websites remember your actions as you navigate, like items in your shopping cart.

Persistent cookies are the digital equivalent of bookmarks. They stay on your device after your browsing session ends. Persistent cookies remember your login information, language preferences, and even the ads you have interacted with. They are handy for a more personalised web experience.

Secure cookies are only sent over encrypted connections, making them safer from prying eyes. Secure cookies are often used for sensitive data like login credentials.

Third-party cookies are similar—they come from a domain other than the one you are visiting. They are often used for tracking and advertising purposes, which can be both useful and, at times, intrusive.

What are the uses of cookies?

Cookies serve a multitude of purposes in the online world.

Firstly, they act as digital ID cards, aiding in user authentication by allowing websites to recognise and keep you logged in during your visit.

Secondly, they foster a sense of personalisation, recalling your preferences such as language choice or website theme. Thirdly, they function as the digital equivalent of a persistent shopping cart, ensuring that items you have added online remain there when you return.

Additionally, cookies facilitate website owners in gathering invaluable analytics data about user interactions, enabling them to make enhancements and customise content.

Finally, cookies play a pivotal role in targeted advertising, as advertisers use them to display ads that align with your interests and browsing history, making online shopping more enticing. Navigating the world of cookies is not all sweetness; but it comes with its set of challenges.

What are the challenges associated?

Firstly, privacy concerns arise as cookies could track your online behaviour, which, while often harmless, can sometimes encroach upon your digital privacy. Secondly, security risks loom when cookies are inadequately secured, opening doors for cybercriminals to pilfer your personal information. Thirdly, the era of user consent has dawned, thanks to privacy regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation and The California Consumer Privacy Act, necessitating websites to seek your approval before deploying certain cookie types, resulting in those somewhat irksome pop-ups and prompts. India’s newly enacted Digital Personal Data Protection Act 2023 now necessitates websites to acquire explicit consent from users prior to collecting or processing their personal data via cookies. In contrast to earlier regulations that often accepted implied consent as satisfactory, the updated law highlights the significance of transparent and well-informed consent. Fourthly, third-party cookies have sparked debates, prompting many web browsers to curb their usage to safeguard user privacy. Lastly, the data deluge generated by the multitude of cookies can potentially clog your browser, leading to a sluggish web experience.

Conclusively, cookies are both sweet and complex. They play a crucial role in enhancing your online experience, but they also come with privacy and security challenges. As the digital landscape continues to evolve, so will the way cookies will be used and regulated. So, the next time you enjoy a warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie, remember the digital cookies that make your online adventures more personalised, even if they sometimes leave a few crumbs behind.

(Sanhita Chauriha is with the Law and Technology Vertical of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy)

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