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Up until a few years ago, if you’d asked me what a cookie was I’d have told you it was a crumbly biscuit with chunks of delicious chocolate best enjoyed with a nice cup of tea. But there is also another type of cookie, an electronic one, that’s arguably not as loved or as understood as the biscuit variety.

If you’ve read articles about cookies then you may have seen many negative things about them. Some people believe they are intrusive and act like ‘Big Brother’ tracking your every move as you browse the Internet. Equally you may have read the positives; that cookies are harmless and many people believe that they enhance your online experience.

From 26th May 2011, the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 (UK Regulations) requires that, when cookies are used on a website, visitors to that site must be given appropriate information on the use of cookies and that the user must agree to the placing of the cookies. You’ll find that on most websites, there is information on ‘cookies’ in their privacy policy explaining how they use them. Later on this year you’ll see more changes, with websites asking for your consent to place cookies.

So what’s all the fuss about cookies and what does it all mean? Here’s a quick guide to help you understand what cookies are.

What is a cookie?

Perhaps the best way to begin describing a cookie is to tell you what they are not. Contrary to what most people believe, they are not programs. In fact, a cookie doesn’t do anything other than store data. They are plain text files that typically consist of a site name and unique user identification.

How do cookies work?

A cookie is applied to your computer when you visit a website for the first time. If you return to that same site, your computer checks to see if it has a cookie that is related to it. This basically means that is checks for one containing the same site name. The information contained in that cookie is then sent back to the website.

This means that the website knows that you have been there before. In some cases what then appears on screen is customised to you, based on the fact that you’re a returning visitor, in an attempt to enhance your onsite experience.

Why are cookies good?

Some cookies can be simple and others more advanced. Many websites use them to record site metrics for example if you are a new or returning visitor, how long you spend on each page, where you click and even your preferences for how a page looks and the colours and images used on it.

They can also be used to store data such as, recording what’s in your shopping basket (adding items to it as you click) and remembering them when you return to make your purchase or when you select ‘remember me’ storing this detail to avoid you having to log in every time you visit that particular website.

These are only but a few examples of how cookies can be used to improve your customer experience. There are many other possibilities. The goal of using cookies is generally to make websites you frequently encounter user friendly with minimal effort on your part. Without the use of cookies, it is fair to say that shopping online would be more demanding.

What are the bad things about cookies?

So what’s the big deal? Well the answer depends on how you feel about company’s storing information on you. There is nothing extraordinary about the information cookies gather but you may or may not like the idea of your information being used to target you for specific products or special offers. Of course not all websites use these types of cookies. Many websites are interested in looking at how visitors use their website and in turn use this information to make improvements going forward.

When cookie use first began, some people felt that their computer was being used to store information that could later be used to formulate a pattern of their browsing habits without warning. Now there is more transparency with organisations openly stating the cookies that they use and what they are used for. You’ll most commonly find this information in their privacy policy or terms and conditions.

Control your cookies

Currently, you will usually find that by using a website, you are agreeing to download the site cookies. However, by the end of May this year, you will be asked to opt in to enable cookies.

Most web browsers already allow you to block all cookies or, with a little more effort, choose which ones to accept. But beware that this can make browsing difficult and some sites will not work when cookies are turned off. However, this option is always available if you want to use it. At the end of the day, it’s up to you.

There is a website that has been set up that is dedicated to providing information on cookies Plus, stay posted for future blogs on the different types of cookies used and new legislation coming into force to help you can make informed choices. Anyone for a chocolate chip cookie?

No advice has been provided by Scottish Friendly. If you are in any doubt as to whether a savings or investment plan is suitable for you, you should contact a financial adviser for advice. If you do not have a financial adviser, you can get details of local financial advisers by visiting Advisers may charge for providing such advice and should confirm any cost beforehand.