Cookies have been fueling privacy debates for almost 20 years. Invisible and ignored by many, they improve our web experience and site owners could hardly do without it. However, the RGPD and the future European e-privacy regulation pose new requirements that must be taken into account. Explanation.
What are cookies
Before saying what cookies are … start by breaking a myth and specify what they are not! Cookies are not programs. They are not executable and can not install anything on your computer or extract data or information about you. Cookies are neither spyware nor viruses, although some cookies are detected by several antivirus software because they can track the activities of users.
A cookie is a small text file placed on your hard drive via your browser (chrome, firefox, safari, …) when you visit a website, install a software or mobile app.
A cookie contains a “unique identifier” that acts as a label. When a website reads the cookie deposited on your machine, it recognizes it and knows that you have already visited this site.
Originally, the cookie was developed as a service to provide websites with a memory, in order to strengthen the user experience and simplify the interaction between site and user while making it more intuitive . (Cookiebot)
Stories of cookies
The origin of the word cookies is fuzzy and leaves a lot to storytelling.
A first version refers to the legend of Hansel & Gretel who mark their path through the forest by dropping “biscuit crumbs” behind them so they can find their way. The story of course evokes the ability of cookies to track your activity. But it seems more logical to associate this story with breadcrumbs (English name of the breadcrumb present on many sites).
The second tells the story of a computer scientist who leaves his company. Strange things happen after his departure! Indeed, from time to time, the computer system of the company stops and the screen displays a message: “Give me a cookie”. And the system only returns to normal when the operator enters the word “cookie” in the system.
A third version refers to “fortune cookies” (these cookies in which we find a small message of good fortune) that used a Unix program. At startup, the system presented to the user who was connecting, a quote, a joke or a nice message. This information was stored in a “cookie file”, which administrators modified as they wished to add their own messages.
But, in all likelihood, the term cookies derives from magic cookies, a term already used by programmers to refer to a data packet that a program receives and returns unchanged.
In fact, the first use of a browser cookie dates back to 1994. A programmer named Lou Montulli then had the idea to use a text file to store information related to the creation of a virtual shopping cart. Then, he uses this same technique to determine if a user has already visited the Netscape site or if it is his first visit. At that time, cookies are accepted by default by all browsers and very few users have any idea of their presence or use.