Be careful of taking a bite out of that web cookie

Issue 2 2022 Information Security

According to research, more than one in five websites use persistent cookies that are stored on people’s devices to help remember information, settings, preferences and sign-on credentials that have previously been saved. And although cookies will potentially be phased out or replaced in the future, with almost every site today still asking whether the user wants to ‘accept all cookies’, Kaspersky highlights that there are certain cybersecurity considerations to keep in mind.

Cookies were designed to make websites more convenient for users. For instance, an online shopping site can remember a person’s preferred currency, or a social media site might save someone’s login details, so they do not have to continually enter their username and password.

However, cookies can also track peoples' activities. An example of this is harvesting user data to make suggestions based on them and of course, display targeted ads. Such cookies may belong not just to the owners of the site, but also to companies with which they have entered into partnership agreements. The latter are called third-party cookies and they are the reason many say cookies are just tracking tools.

Because cookies contain a wealth of private information, they are subject to regulation. Many countries throughout the world have implemented legislative and regulatory acts that require site owners to ask users for consent to the collection of data, i.e., the permission box when someone first visits a site.

“Even though the temptation is there to simply accept all cookies to close the annoying window, there are risks associated with that. It is always better to read the fine-print and to customise the cookie settings in terms of what information is saved about the user. If the website lets the user set up their own cookies, things like advertising preferences can be set as well as several others that can contain sensitive information about site visitors,” says Bethwel Opil, enterprise sales manager at Kaspersky in Africa.

But even before visiting a site, users can customise the cookie settings of their Internet browsers. Most of the popular browsers offer two ways to limit the impact of cookies on a user’s privacy – by completely erasing them from the device, or by blocking certain types of cookies, for example, third-party ones. Sure, the delete option may seem simpler and more reliable, but it is far from convenient.

Simply by taking a few minutes to tweak the browser cookie settings, a user will be able to significantly increase their privacy while avoiding unnecessary inconvenience when visiting sites. There are also options like the Private Browsing feature in Kaspersky Security Cloud that will warn about phishing and online scams while taking care of virus protection.

“Cookies are a necessity for our digital lives. That does not mean users simply need to accept everything thereby potentially compromising their privacy and opening themselves up to malware or identity theft. We must all become more aware of the risks inherent to cookies and the potential for abuse. However, tweaking browser settings or customising the cookie settings of each site when someone first visits them will go a long way to mitigating the risks,” concludes Opil.

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