The Cookies Behind the Digital World

Whenever we browse websites, there’s a lot more going on in the background than what we can actually see. Because of what’s going on in the background, there is no coincidence in what appears on our web pages.

Website cookies are small pieces of information from a specific website that are stored on our digital devices. Cookies are essentially invisible text files that are saved on our computers and are used to track our browsing habits as well as remember our preferences and settings. They are in charge of our entire internet experience.


What Are Web Cookies?

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Zsolt Biczo/Shutterstock

Whenever we visit a certain website, bits of data are sent from the website and kept on our devices. These packets of data are stored in the form of unique codes to recognize users. On the bright side, they don’t actually store names, passwords, or any other detailed personal information. On the dark side, they track our online activities, preferences, and patterns, which is a little creepy.

Cookies are designed with the goal of tracking, collecting, and storing targeted information for relevant purposes. These cookies do a lot of good for website owners since they enable them to take advantage of visitors’ data to make money from ads. For website users, cookies offer the best internet experience possible. They facilitate more pleasant and less routine browsing. Regardless, cookies have always been at the center of a controversial debate when it comes to privacy concerns.


Evolution of Web Cookies

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In 1994, Lou Montulli, a Netscape employee, was the first to invent cookies. At the time, the company was looking for ways to cut server storage expenses. Montulli came up with the idea of using magic cookies that were able to keep pieces of data on the clients’ computers. Since then, digital cookies have transformed the whole trajectory of user-website interactions. It would have been impossible for us to enjoy the simplicity of today’s websites without the presence of web cookies.

Here is a quick rundown of the evolution of website cookies:

  • Before 1994: websites were unable to recognize their visitors. Every time a visitor accessed a website, they were regarded as if they were a stranger. As a result, companies were having trouble storing huge amounts of data on each of their clients.
  • Magic Cookies: These cookies were originally created to boost the e-commerce experience of Netscape clients in 1994. Magic cookies are unique codes that are sent from a server to a client’s device to track, authenticate, and inform clients about services. They contain information about the path through which the server can be reached. Due to their scalability, magic cookies found to be applicable for a wider range of purposes since then.
  • Session Cookies: These types of cookies contain randomly generated sequences of letters and numbers that a website server sends by default, to a browser for a limited period of time. Session cookies are temporary files that are destroyed after the user leaves the sites. These cookies are designed to recognize each web user as they move through the site. After Internet Explorer added cookies in 1995, they became increasingly popular.
  • First-Party Cookies: After 1995, companies became more interested in using cookies to their full potential. Consequently, first-party cookies were created with a variety of features that allow websites to track visitors’ browsing habits, authenticate their identities, and remember their settings and preferences. The data collected by these cookies can only be accessed by the owner of the website.
  • Third-Party Cookies: By 1996, advertising companies had already figured out how to enhance their ad strategy by using third-party cookies. These cookies are purposely created and placed by websites other than the one we are visiting. Companies have been using these cookies to track website visitors, improve the user experience, and collect data that helps to deliver relevant ads. Third-party cookies keep track of users’ browsing patterns to make use of the information for a specific targeted marketing purpose, such as ads and affiliate marketing.
  • After 1999: Third-party cookies raise a lot of controversial issues regarding the privacy of users. Privacy advocates have repeatedly labeled them as unsafe. However, cookies were becoming the most powerful advertising tool. As a result, in an attempt to regulate third-party cookies, numerous organizations developed mandatory notifications for consent to be submitted by websites. Hence, cookie popups emerged.


Cookie Popups

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Kojaif Stock/Shutterstock

These days, whenever we browse websites, every now and then we encounter a message popping up, “This website collects cookies to provide a better user experience … We use cookies to analyze our website traffic and performance … we never collect any personal data.” It’s rather frequent to find this type of message on practically all websites. Most of us, however, blindly accept all cookies without reading the details of the popup notifications. The popup messages, however, contain statements that explain how the websites use cookies.

Websites are obligated to notify their users about how they are going to use information collected by cookies. They are required to obtain consent from their users prior to utilizing the information they have obtained. Websites are obligated to be honest about their use of cookies along with users’ freedom to opt-out. In case of any concerns about their privacy, users can delete all cookies stored on their computer, disable accepted cookies, or use privacy-protection tools.


The Last Days of Third-Party Cookies Are Coming Soon

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In 2021, Google announced that third-party cookies would be phased out soon. In their report, they stated that these cookies have played a major role in delivering relevant ads to consumers across the web. However, they said, “This has led to an erosion of trust.” Google brought up a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, where 72% of people feel that almost all of what they do online is being tracked by advertisers, technology firms, or other companies, and 81% believe that they face potential risks as a result of data collection that exceeds the benefits.

Google further emphasized that a future vision of creating a ‘free and open web’ should not be jeopardized due to privacy concerns of the public. Instead of using tracking cookies, the company suggested innovative alternatives that are effective in maintaining users’ anonymity.

Yet the doubt remains: what if these cutting-edge technologies find new ways of tracking users in a ghostly manner? The cycle will continue — when new challenges arise, new solutions will emerge.


Illustration: Inspiring/Shutterstock


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