Disclaimer: This post is about internet and browser cookies. If you clicked this link in the hope we'd be discussing chocolate chip cookies, feel free to check out the incredible true story of their invention here. It's actually a very interesting read.
What are cookies?
Cookies are essentially little text files. They contain information like the language you want to view a website in, if you're logged in or not, even which links you clicked on and how long you visited a page for. They don't collect personal data, or anything that can identify you outside of a visitor to the website - so no photos, contact information or login information.
How do they work?
When you visit a website, the cookie is moved from your browser (Chrome, Internet Explorer or Firefox, for example) onto your computer's hard drive. Things you click on while using the website, and any changes you've made to the website (like the language, or how you view the site) are all held by the cookie.
When you type a web address into your browser, the website checks your computer for any existing cookies for that site. This is how Amazon knows what you kept in your basket, for example. Cookies for different sites do different things depending on what the owners of the website have asked it to do, and some cookies do multiple things.
Are cookies good or bad?
Cookies aren't good or bad, just as a hammer or a stapler or a half empty tube of superglue aren't good or bad. They each exist to fulfill a purpose, it's the morality of the one wielding them that you need to be wary of. We need cookies to use the internet; a lot of websites won't work without them. First and foremost they exist to make browsing the web easier for us.
However, cookies do serve organisations as well as users. Big companies like Google and Facebook can afford to offer their services for free because of the amount of valuable data they gather about your browsing habits. Their cookies, known as tracking cookies, collect information about how you use the internet, what sites you visit and your interests to create an anonymous profile of you.
This profile is then sold to advertisers and other companies, who can then target very specific groups of people with their adverts. This way they aren't wasting money on trying to sell ice to Eskimos. That's also why if you were looking at flights to Germany, for example, it might show you advertisements for German speaking lessons. Without cookies you would still see adverts, but they would be random.
So how do I know what information is being collecting?
When you're on the internet, you leave a digital footprint. How comprehensive this footprint is just depends on how much you go online, and how much of your information you have uploaded yourself. Facebook, for example, has much more comprehensive data about you from your profile and statuses than it could ever hope to gain from using cookies.
Ultimately, there is no way to know what information Google or Facebook or any business have about you, or exactly what they're doing with it beyond targeted advertising. There's no telling how accurate their data is either - any and every link clicked on your device becomes part of your profile. It cannot distinguish what has been clicked accidentally or who is using the device.
There are apps available for your browser which enable you to see who is monitoring your clicks. They let you pick and choose which cookies you are finding helpful, and which you'd rather block. It's also possible to edit cookie settings on Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Firefox to do this. You can also use in-private or incognito browsing to ensure that all cookies are deleted after you've closed the pages.
Can we panic now?!
You can, but you shouldn't! Although there is potential for this data to be misused, cookies are for the most part used responsibly and with us in mind. We could throw all our internet connected devices out of the window, but it seems like an extreme reaction to Amazon recommending books that you might like.
If you are worried about how accurate their information is, and are still tempted to go into hiding, Google something random like ''aboriginal tribal chants'' every so often. That should mess with their analytics.