15-minute cookies: the bigblu guide to website and browser tracking

20th September 2018

If you were anything like me, by the time you cleared through all those GDPR emails, it was just about time to be bombarded with cookie pop-ups. And that, my friends, will be the truth whether or not you know what a cookie pop-up is when it’s not being a transient hipster biscuit hangout.

As cutesy as the phrase cookie pop-up may sound, like much in this world of tech, it is a case of dressing up an information-mining tool behind a disarming euphemism. However, before we all go grassing off to the GDPR police, we need to remember that there is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep us in everlasting ignorance – and that principle is contempt prior to investigation.

So, let us investigate. Without recourse to any puns, just what is a cookie?

Other terms coined by those crazy sun-starved programming geniuses include ‘mouse droppings’ and ‘turd’

Cookies are most commonly baked until crisp or just long enough that…stop, stop, stop. Sorry. When we discuss cookies in relation to a website that you will click on using your bigblu broadband connection, it is no longer a baked good. Rather it is a small data file that contains a unique identification number that a website places on your computer or mobile device when you visit that website.

So, why a cookie and not, say, a pink wafer?

Well, it derived from “magic cookies”, which was a term coined by computer programmers to mean a ‘result whose contents are not defined but which can be passed back to the same or some other program later.’ Other terms coined by those crazy sun-starved programming geniuses who have altered our world forever include, ‘mouse droppings’ and ‘turd’ so, I think we got off lightly with just cookie.

I asked our own resident web developer if he could help me explain what cookies are in simple terms. After staring at me in bemused silence for a few minutes, I realised I had to warm him up with some questions about the new Spider-Man game. After staring at him in bemused silence for a few minutes (with the odd nod and a couple of hmmms), I asked him again about the cookies.

This time he explained, with a delicacy and simplicity that took me by surprise, that techies use this analogy to make themselves understood to us lowly Luddites:

“Think of a cookie as a cloakroom token, viewed in isolation it has no intrinsic value. However, there is an element of uniqueness and usefulness about the cheap bit of plastic that allows it to be exchanged for your valuable Barbour jacket.

“The token is opaque because, in truth, you don’t really care how the cloakroom staff retrieve your Barbour, you’re just glad when they do, as well as being relieved that the pockets look like they haven’t been rummaged through.”

Seeing as I’ve never seen our developer without his jacket on (and zipped up to the neck), I have no idea how he even knows what a cloakroom is. Nevertheless, it is a damn fine analogy, and one I will return to later this week.

For now, though, you’re going to know what exactly it is that a cookie does when it’s not featuring in cloakroom analogies. In simplest terms, the cookie stores a variety of information used to improve and customise your browsing experience. There are a variety of different cookies:

  • Session-based cookies last while your browser is open;
  • Persistent cookies last for various periods across browser restarts; and
  • Pixels, which are also known as pixel GIFs or web beacons, are related technologies that are used to set cookies or simply collect information about a single web interaction.

Since the end of May, when the new GDPR regulations came into force, every time you’ve visited a website for the first time, or used a different browser, or a different device, you will have been served a ‘cookie policy pop-up’. The best of them will read something like this from New York Media LLC, publisher of the New York Magazine and Vulture:

“We use cookies to give you the best online experience. Their use improves our sites’ functionality and enables our partners to advertise to you. By continuing to use our website or checking the I agree box below you are agreeing to our use of cookies in accordance with our Cookie Policy. Details on how to decline their use can be found in our Cookie Policy.”

Although the New York Media information is strong on detail and lets you know exactly what it is you are agreeing to and which third parties will have access to your browsing behaviour on that website, you are left with a binary choice: either you consent or…

Or what? Well, in the case of many browsers that give you a binary choice, the alternative is that you can refuse to use cookies by disabling them in your browser but such refusal will most likely come at a cost. You can still use the site but some areas will be slower, or may not work at all and you will lose out on the chance to do things like customise settings for activities like login, commenting on articles and surfacing favourite topics.

The most thorough website cookie policies will give you a high degree of flexibility and guidance over setting the power of your cookie to collect and share information. Take, for example, the Horse & Hound website. When you visit it for the first time, it provides you with the option to choose exactly how much information you consent to be used from your cookie. Options include:

  • Ad selection, delivery, reporting;
  • Information storage and access;
  • Personalisation;
  • Content selection, delivery, reporting; and
  • Third-party vendor information storage.

So, now that we all know a little more about cookies and a little more about cloakrooms, come back at the end of the week and I’ll take you through the advantages and disadvantages of cookies. We’ll be talking private browsing, incognito and I’ll attempt to stretch that cloakroom token analogy to breaking point.

Until then, my best and only advice when a cookie pop-up pops up is for all of us to stop just clicking “Yes, I agree” without a second thought and start paying more attention to what it is we are actually agreeing to – and together we can make the web a better place to surf.