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COMMUNITY BLOG - Ella Donald - What are cookies?

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

The community blog posts are written by InfoSec professionals from diverse sectors who have kindly provided articles for free to support the demystifying of cyber.

Author: Ella Donald

What are cookies, and should I accept them?

From news to shopping websites and more, you’ll encounter cookies all over the internet. And no, we don’t mean the edible, chocolate chip variety. Below, find out what cookies are, whether you should accept them, and how you can stay safe online.

If they’re not edible, what are they?

Cookies are small packets of data, created by you while browsing the internet. They're placed on your computer, smartphone, or tablet, by your web browser, and are used to access the website. They may go by different names, like web cookies, internet cookies, and browser cookies. Basically, they keep track of your visits and activity to websites.

Cookies serve a variety of purposes, and many of them can be helpful.

They include:

  • saving your shopping cart as you browse different pages (and have multiple browsing sessions), so you can decide on your purchases

  • saving your contact details, for easy access and filling

  • saving your login information, so you stay logged in between sessions

Cookies have existed since the wide proliferation of the internet in the 1990s. However, they’ve recently become more visible to internet users due to changing laws around data privacy, particularly in the EU. This is due to some potential dangers when using cookies.

Should I accept them?

As you can see above, this answer is complex. There are three main types of cookies:

  • Session cookies: used only when navigating a website, disappearing once you leave

  • Tracking cookies: creating long-term records of visiting a site

  • Authentication cookies: tracking when and how a user is logged in

On most secure sites, cookies are safe, not transferring nefarious software (eg. Malware) to your computer. In some circumstances, however, third-party tracking cookies (from advertisers on a website) can pose risks, as they can track activity across the internet, on any website carrying their advertisements. These include zombie cookies, which are impossible to delete, and track browsing histories across websites.

Additionally, security of authentication cookies is dependent on the security of both the website and browser, and whether the data is encrypted – if it isn’t, it could be read and used by attackers.

Tracking cookies are a main concern for experts and governments, with European law now requiring all EU-based websites gain consent from users to create them – you've likely seen these pop-ups around the internet, particularly in the last couple of years.

How can I stay safe online?

Cookies can make the internet easier to navigate, so it may not be optimal to disable cookies entirely. However, if you want to do this, look for the privacy settings in your browser. If you simply want to evaluate the cookies on your computer, this can also be done by navigating to the privacy settings (look under tools, or advanced). Then, you can manage and remove the cookies on your computer.

To remove more nefarious cookies, you can use antivirus software.


Ella Donald Ella Donald works with The University of Queensland’s Data Strategy and Governance team, and has a background in journalism and communications.

COMMUNITY BLOG - guest author Ella Donald - 22 December 2021

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