Wait! Don’t accept those website cookies without looking

Everybody likes cookies but cookies offered when you log unto a website are not to be accepted in haste. Admittedly, the timing of such cookies —like terms and conditions—can prove annoying especially when the information on the website is needed urgently.

However, customizing cookies remain very useful in limiting how much personal data a user gives website operators while browsing. Without this customization control, personalized adverts will continually make users feel like the internet eavesdrops on their conversations.

Digital cookies are small text files placed unto an internet user’s device capable of monitoring and collecting data on the user’s preferences for the operator of the website and or permitted 3rd parties. This data may include the user’s browsing patterns, places of visit, web searches and subjects of interest.

While individually, this data is harmless, an aggregation over a period of time and across several platforms provides deep insights into a user’s choices. This can be used to profile the user and specific products targeted at the user; a phenomenon described by Harvard Professor, Shoshana Zuboff as “Surveillance Capitalism”.

In this phenomenon, advertisers are guaranteed the purchase of their products because advertisers know in advance, what consumers need from data gathered on them.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), EU’s foremost data protection law identifies three broad categories of cookies: Duration, Provenance and Purpose cookies. About eight(8) sub-categories covering website performance, functionality and marketing/advertising cookies exist under these broad categories. In most cases, marketing/advertising cookies are planted by not just the website visited but third-party companies who have been granted access to also collect such data for their use.

The user is often not informed of these third parties whose business are purely commercial and unconnected with the purpose of the website visited.

Generally, websites are allowed to install cookies strictly necessary for their performance. All other cookies must be consented to by the user, especially marketing cookies which may harvest the personal data of the user. Regrettably, most websites compel users to just click “accept all” without scrutiny by designing complex cookies interface. Others also preset marketing/advertising cookies to be active unless specifically turned off.

Superficially, targeted advertising may itself not be a bad thing but past events have revealed data gathered by websites, aside commercial purposes, can be weaponized even in politics. For instance, the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal showed that during the 2016 U.S elections, users’ data obtained from Facebook was used to personalize campaign ads to citizens.

The ads harnessed citizens’ fears and hopes in manipulating their votes for preferred candidates subconsciously —a digital hypnotism of sort.

Therefore, the next time you see a cookie pop-up when you visit a website, be reminded of your privacy and autonomy in making decisions on the internet. Take a minute to customize the cookie settings by disallowing “not strictly necessary/essential cookies”.

This will guard against websites collecting data that can subsequently be sold and used to hypnotically manipulate your choices later. Take control of your data, privacy and choices on the internet. Do it now!

The author, Nicholas Lenin Anane Agyei, is a lawyer with special interests in data protection, technology and telecommunications regulation.

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