Newsletter - sign up here
Search Webster
Webster's pieces from The Oldie
Webster's Webwatch

Cookies and their habits

May 2016

You have no secrets from your computer.  It remembers every single thing you do on it long after you have forgotten; but is it telling anyone else what you are up to? Quite possibly.

The use of personal data has become the commercial bedrock of the Internet; if a web based service is free, it’s almost always because the product being sold is actually information about you.

It works like this: some websites place tiny bits of software innocently called “cookies” in your computer (you’ve probably seen the warning popups).  That innocent little name conceals a lot of power.

There are two types of cookie.  The first follows you around a website, recording the pages you dwell on, the links you click and so on.  It helps the owner to improve the website and provide a better service; it also remembers your name, that sort of thing. 

The other kind follows you around the internet.  It gathers all it can find about you and your habits; then its owner either allows people to use the information to place targeted advertising on their site (Google and Facebook do this) or they sell the data to other people. At its simplest you will have noticed that if you buy something online, you see adverts for associated products for quite a while. 

It’s is exciting for marketers, because this sort of data has never been available before in any quantity.  Pre- internet, there was no central record of the shops you visit, things you buy or articles you read, unless you kept it yourself.  Nowadays, it is automatically collected by our computers, at least as far as online life is concerned. 

At first sight this might seem intrusive, or even sinister, but in practice very few of us will ever suffer any sort of loss through this collection of information about us, especially if we stay in the mainstream of the internet.  However, respectable companies are very aware of the danger of losing your trust over the issue, and they should be; some recent research established that about a quarter of us have stopped an online purchase because we became nervous about what will happen to the data.  That’s millions of pounds in lost sales.

The trouble is, we can’t have it both ways.  Either we allow this collection of data, and in return use websites for nothing and contribute to making the internet easier to use, or we don’t, and pay for the services instead.

I think the answer is to give us proper access to our data.  As we get better at understanding the ways in which information about us is used, we will also be better able to judge if we object or not, but this can only happen if we are told what’s going on.  I don’t really mind an organisation using what they know about me to make better decisions, but I’d like to be in the same position they are, and use what they know to guide my own choices.  It’s my data, after all; I’d like to see it.

Finally, don’t worry: of all the huge mountains of data that are collected, most of it turns out to be useless.  One recent estimate suggested that 90% of it is of no value at all, to anyone; quite reassuring, really.


Dealing with cookies

If you want to delete cookies from your computer, it's not difficult, although most of them present no real threat, and indeed often make things easier; remembering your login details, for example.  Still, if you don't like them, here are the instructions:

Google Chrome:

  1. Click Ctrl+H
  2. Click on "Clear Browsing data.."
  3. Tick the boxes relating to what you want to delete
  4. Set how far back you want it to go ( from "the beginning of time" will delete it all)
  5. Click "Clear browsing data"


  • Click on Menu (three horizontal bars, top right
  • Click on Options (cogwheel symbol)
  • Click on Privacy (Lone Ranger mask)
  • Under History, click the dropdown menu and change it to "Use custom Settings for History"
  • Click on "Show Cookies"
  • Click on "Remove All"
  • Click on "Close"



Internet Explorer

To delete cookies
  • Open Internet Explorer by clicking the Start button. In the search box, type Internet Explorer, and then, in the list of results, click Internet Explorer.
  • Click the Tools button (cogwheel symbol or press Alt+X)), point to Safety, and then click Delete browsing history.
  • Select the Cookies check box, and then click Delete.