“By continuing to use this site, you agree to allow us to use cookies to store, access, and process personal data as you visit our website.”

Let’s be honest. When most of us visit a new website and are greeted with a message like this, we just click through and continue browsing, learning, or shopping as we intended. But if we take three seconds to read the message at a site we haven’t visited before, we may have second thoughts. Just what information are they tracking, and why would I want to give it to them? Some sites let you opt out, while others force you to accept their terms before you can even continue. Can we even trust them?

Over the next few months, I’d like to dive into the cookie jar of internet browsing and talk about the good, the bad, and the nefarious use of cookies on websites you visit every day.

First things first… cookies are not the sweet treats of the internet that will spike your blood sugar if you consume too many of them. They also aren’t breadcrumbs. They aren’t a trail that leads you back to where you came from or your browser cookies. “Magic cookies,” as they were originally called, have been around since the mid-nineties, and address a fundamental weakness of the protocols used to surf the internet: statelessness. Not having a state means that every time you request a web page, the server you are contacting knows nothing about who you are, if you’ve been to the site before, or even what page you just came from. Cookies, then, are small pieces of information that are passed back and forth in an encrypted fashion between your computer and the website you’re visiting to make your visit more usable.

Imagine if you had to login to every page on Amazon each time you clicked through to a new product. Or if Facebook didn’t know what posts you’ve already seen. Or if the website you read books from didn’t know you like to read in “dark mode” and lit up the room as you’re trying to get ready for some rest. All of these accomplishments rely on cookies, and they’re a vital part of our internet experience.

Cookies can also be used nefariously, of course. They’re a big part of why a product you looked at on Amazon shows up on your Facebook feed, or what you’ve got to watch out for when you use a public computer to access your bank and need to make sure you log out before you leave.

Over the next few months, we’re going to dive deeper into the uses of cookies in our internet experience and how to use them wisely – when to block them, but also how to not lose out on the personalization and convenience we’ve come to rely on them for.

Written by Chet Cromer for publication in the Business Leader