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Cookies: everything you need to know

Discover how cookies and your personal data are used in marketing, and how to protect yourself

Cookies being given back to a woman

You’ve probably heard of ‘cookies’ before, given that almost every website now asks you about them!

The ‘accept all’ or ‘necessary only’ boxes may be frustrating to continuously pick, but after reading this we hope that it’ll be clear why it’s good that we have the choice.

What are cookies?

A computer cookie 🍪 , also known as an HTTP cookie, is a packet of data that stores small pieces of information about your online activity.

Cookies are created every time you visit a website, keeping track of how you behave online. They’re stored in your web browser and can be accessed by the website the next time that you visit, or by programs on your computer.

🤔What are cookies used for?

Cookies are used for many different reasons. Often, they improve our online experience. For example, companies can use cookies to learn about how their customer’s are engaging with their website, and then adjust their services and products to suit their users’ needs.

On the other hand, many people feel that some types of cookies, such as third party cookies, take this too far and infringe on privacy. This is particularly felt when this type of cookie is not made obvious, such as on mental health sites.

These are the three kinds of cookies you should be aware of:

  • Session cookies track what you do on a site, but are deleted when you leave. For example, an online retailer can keep track of what’s in your online shopping cart.
  • Persistent cookies remain on your computer indefinitely or until their expiration date. For example, to remember your log-in details or your preference settings.
  • Third party cookies, also known as 'tracking cookies', are often a bit more concerning. They allow advertisers and analytics companies to track your behaviour across sites containing their ad. For example, after visiting a website, tracking cookies can follow you around the web and show you ads for the products you viewed or interacted with. Even more, some sell what they’ve learned from your behaviour onto others.

How to remove cookies ⛏️

Removing your cookies is easy, and a great way to protect your own privacy. Our team makes a habit of doing this regularly!

You could choose to block all cookies from your browser, but this would affect how sites function and probably make your online experience worse.

Instead, if you click the ‘necessary only’ option on websites and regularly clear out your cookies, your online experience won’t be interrupted and you’ll be able to protect your privacy, too!

While there isn’t one way to remove your cookies, as it depends on the browser, all browsers will let you do this.

Here’s how you can clear cookies on the world’s 🌎 most popular browser, Google Chrome:

  1. Open the Chrome browser and click on the Chrome Icon in the top right corner. Click on ‘Settings’.
  2. Scroll down and select ‘clear browsing data’, then select to clear ‘cookies and other site data’. Done!

For more information on how to delete and clear cookies on your specific browser, see here.

What is marketing data? 📊

Marketing data is all the information that is gathered from the interactions between a you and a company. To give you an idea, customer likes and dislikes, market research, customer feedback and commercial transactions are some common types of marketing data.

Companies collect this through looking at both big data, huge data sets gleaned by software like Google analytics, and your personal data, which can be collected by tracking technologies like third party cookies.

It can be used by companies to enhance their product development, sales, branding, and shape the nature of advertising.

⚠️ Reminder: personal data is any information that can directly or indirectly identify you.

How is personal data used in marketing?

Collecting the personal data of users allows companies to build detailed profiles of people, and target them with the advertisements they think will catch their attention.

For example, by knowing someone’s age, gender, recently viewed retail items, and occupation, advertisers can place individuals within certain demographics, and use online ads to sell them products that are designed with this demographic in mind. You can read more about the Advertising technology industry here.

But it’s not just retail companies like Amazon or Ebay who use cookies to collect demographic data for advertising, this is a widespread practice.

For example, in 2017, the British Heart Foundation and the RSPCA were investigated for ‘wealth-screening’ donors, by gathering data on donors from other sources, and trading their details with other organisations.

In 2019, The Guardian revealed how political parties used demographic data to target voters, revealing that the Liberal Democrats targeted young voters, and Conservative party ads targeted male voters.

The good news is, under GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation), companies need to explicitly ask for our permission to target ads at us through cookies. If they don’t, it’s within your rights to file a complaint to the ICO. The thing to bear in mind, then, is to delete cookies in your browser if you don't want companies storing this information. Or, by sending deletion requests to companies of your choice.

SEND A DELETION REQUEST

Data protection and marketing ⚖️

You may have found those last two examples a bit worrying, and you’re not alone. Whilst tracking technologies may keep us from seeing irrelevant content from advertising technology agencies, they also raise privacy concerns. A survey from the Pew Research Centre found that 68% of American adults don’t like having their online behaviours tracked in order to be targeted. Similarly in the UK, recent reports from Which?, YouGov and BritainThinks have all shown a sizeable increase in the number of people who are concerned about how their personal data is being handled.

How to prevent being tracked for marketing purposes ❌

First of all, clear the cookies from your browser on a regular basis to avoid being chased by stalker ads across different websites.

You can also use a private browser such as Incognito mode or Firefox Focus that will stop you from being tracked across the web.

If you’re simply tired of seeing targeted ads all the time, you can opt out of ‘interest-based advertising’ on social media platforms or use one of our recommend Ad Blockers:

  • AdBlock
  • Popper Blocker
  • CyberSec by Nord VPN
  • CleanWeb
  • R.O.B.E.R.T by Windscribe
  • AdLock

How Rightly can help 💪

But, if you're looking to take things a step further, and you want to actually see and delete the data companies and ad tech agencies have stored on you, we can help.

Under GDPR law, you can send a SAR (a Subject Access Request) asking for a copy of the personal information a site has of yours, and you can then ask them to delete it.

To do this quickly and easily, feel free to use our Rightly database to search for companies. If there are any that you'd like to SAR but can't find within the database, please get in touch and we'll add it for you straight away. There are over 1500 companies on there though, so you should find the one that you're looking for! You can send multiple requests at once, and keep all of the responses from companies in one place.

Final thoughts 💭

Cookies, like most things, can be used to help individuals have a better online experience, as well as companies improve their services. That's great, and if you'd like to see our Cookie policy, you can do here.

Unfortunately, many companies don't use cookies entirely honestly, like the mental health websites we mentioned before. Easy steps that you can take to protect your information are regularly clearing cookies from your browsers and making sure that you're not agreeing to lots of cookies that you don't want when you enter new sites.

If you'd like to get your personal data back from companies that may already have it and be using it, no problem. Check out our How to send a SAR page, or get started and send your first request through our platform below.

Send your first request