When someone offers you a cookie offline, the typical response is “Yes, please!” or maybe “Can I have two?”
But when navigating the online world, eagerly accepting every cookie offer that comes your way might not be the best way to proceed. That’s why NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen paid a visit to TODAY Friday to help everyone understand what these innocent-sounding requests really mean and how we can all better protect our privacy.
What is a cookie?
A cooking is a small text file stored in your web browser that can share information about you and your online habits with the site it originated from or with a third party.
Nguyen joined Al Roker, Craig Melvin and Sheinelle Jones with a real cookie in hand to cover the basics.
“Think about a cookie in real life,” Nguyen said. “What happens when you eat a cookie? You make crumbs. What happens when there’s crumbs? There’s a trail. They lead you somewhere.”
And sometimes, that can be helpful.
Reasons for cookies
Cookies can serve various purposes. They can:
- Remember preferences to improve online experiences.
- Personalize content for individual users.
- Track users.
“So what happens on a website is that trail (of crumbs) leads me to Al,” she said, motioning towards the 3rd hour of TODAY co-host. “It reminds me, ‘Oh, this is Al Roker. Here’s his username; here’s his password. I’m not going to make him log in every time.’ Or ‘Oh, Craig likes sports news over politics. Let me make sure I get him to the sports.’ And ‘Sheinelle, last time she was there, she was looking for a red sweater. Maybe she needs a pink sweater.”
Reasons to decline cookies
Not every cookie is good or wanted. Some reasons you may want to reject cookies include:
- A website is unencrypted.
- Your anti-virus software flags it as unsafe.
- The cookie request includes third-party cookies.
- The site wants to use your personal information.
In those cases, you might be better off refusing the cookies. Just make sure to actively refuse them when a pop-up window asks for permission. Because not saying no, in this case, can mean yes.
“If you ‘X’ out of that or you just keep scrolling and it eventually fades away, that does not mean you didn’t accept the cookies,” Nguyen explained. “In fact, you probably did. ... That is usually (considered) opting in.”
So, instead of ignoring the request, be sure to click “decline” or, if there’s a “cookie settings” option, select that and continue to select your choices from the variety of cookie options presented. Just note that website performance may be affected — for instance, the site won’t remember your login details when you return.
But cookies aren’t the only way your privacy can be compromised online.
Just as sites can interact with your browser using cookies, apps can track you when you’re using your phone or tablet.
“It’s a very similar concept,” Nguyen said. “Apps want to know as much about you as possible. They want to build a digital profile."
That’s how your favorite store knows which location to recommend when you check their app on the go.
How to turn off app tracking using your Apple iOS devices:
- Go into Settings.
- Then go to Privacy.
- Then select Tracking.
- Once there, you can turn off all app tracking or only allow certain apps to learn your details.
“Just so you know, they know your age, they know what kind of device you’re using, they know your gender, your username, your passwords. So there’s a lot of information that other companies have about you,” Nguyen said of those details. “Now, you should be able to take that control back, if you want to.”
And if you use an Android device, just be sure to make sure you’re running the latest version of the operating system, so that you’ll have the best controls available in your privacy dashboard.