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It’s Time to Rebrand ‘Cookies’

Call them what they are: tracking beacons

Owen Williams
OneZero
Published in
6 min readJun 15, 2020

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Photo: Bill Hinton/Getty Images

“Cookies” benefit from a bit of a misnomer. They sound like a treat, but they are, of course, one of the most potent tracking tools available to online advertisers. It’s easy to accept them whenever we visit a new website because they sound so innocent.

Forget the name for a second. At their core, cookies are simple plain text passed from a website to your computer and stored by your browser for later use. That text is passed back to the server when you request a web page, and it’s used by developers for an array of tasks. For example, when you click “remember me” as you log in to a site, a cookie is set so the site doesn’t ask you to log in again. Without cookies, the internet would be much more annoying and forgetful. But that same useful technology also allows other sites, services, and advertisers to invisibly track you.

It’s easy to lose sight of that, particularly as popular brands tend to obfuscate how they use cookies in their terms of service. Take Giphy as one timely example: Its privacy policy states that “Our cookies do not, by themselves, contain Personal Data. However, we may match cookies with your Personal Data to identify you, and we may use cookies to identify that your web browser has accessed aspects of the Services and may associate that information with your Account if you have one… This Privacy Policy covers our use of cookies only and does not cover the use of cookies by third parties. We do not control when or how third parties place cookies on your computer or device.” This is a lot of words to essentially say that Giphy’s service, in combination with others you’ve accessed, may be able to figure out who you are and market to you appropriately.

Clearly, the term “cookies” isn’t quite right: When it comes to third-party cookies that follow you around the web, we should call them “tracking beacons” instead. There is nothing delicious about having our data tracked and harvested!

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Owen Williams
OneZero

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. Design Manager in Tech. https://twitter.com/ow