The Dark Secrets of Internet Cookies: What Really Happens When You Click “Accept”

You’ve seen the ubiquitous pop-ups on nearly every website – “This site uses cookies. Click accept to continue.” Like most of the 4.9 billion internet users worldwide, you probably mindlessly click “accept” without a second thought, eager to access the content you came for.

But what are you really agreeing to when you accept cookies? The truth may surprise and alarm you.


Internet cookies, despite the innocuous-sounding name, are not delectable baked treats but rather small text files that websites send to your device.

When you click “accept”, these files are stored on your web browser and begin tracking your online activity and collecting your personal data. Over 95% of websites use cookies.

There are two main types of cookies:

  1. First-party cookies are placed directly by the website you’re visiting. They can enable helpful features like saving your login info, language preferences, and shopping cart contents to provide a smoother user experience.
  2. Third-party cookies are more insidious – they are placed by outside advertisers and data brokers to track you across multiple websites. These allow your browsing history, search queries, IP address, and other personal info to be compiled into a detailed profile that is sold to the highest bidder – usually companies that want to target you with ads.

A 2022 study found that the average website has 22 third-party cookies that collect and transmit user data to dozens or even hundreds of entities.

Popular sites like YouTube have been found to have over 100 third-party cookies. Collectively, over 350 different companies are estimated to have access to your browsing history.

While the EU’s GDPR law enacted in 2018 requires websites to obtain explicit consent for placing cookies, in the US there are much looser restrictions.

Most US websites operate on an opt-out basis, meaning cookies are placed by default and it’s up to you to dig through confusing browser settings to disable them, something only 3% of people do.

The data collected by cookies enables advertisers to build an alarmingly accurate and detailed profile about your age, gender, location, interests, health conditions, financial status, and more.

This profile is used to manipulate the ads, content, and even prices you see online. If your cookie profile suggests you are affluent, an e-commerce site may show you higher prices.

Cookies also enable online tracking techniques like browser fingerprinting – even if you delete your cookies, companies can still recognize and track you based on your unique browser and device characteristics. Over 80% of the most popular websites are estimated to use browser fingerprinting.

Even more concerning, cookies can pose security risks. If hackers intercept cookies, they can access your private info like browsing history, login credentials, financial details, and messages.

Cookies placed by unencrypted websites are especially vulnerable. Hackers stole over 32 million cookies in 2022 alone.

So what can you do to protect yourself? Privacy experts recommend:

  1. Be selective about which cookies you accept. Reject third-party cookies whenever possible.
  2. Use browser extensions to automatically block trackers and delete cookies.
  3. Browse in incognito/private mode to minimize cookie collection.
  4. Use a VPN to hide your IP address and location from cookies.
  5. Opt out of targeted ads through websites’ privacy settings.

The bottom line is nothing is truly “free” online. Websites may offer free content, but the hidden price is your privacy and personal data collected through cookies. So the next time you see the “accept cookies” pop-up, think twice before clicking – your data may be the most valuable treat of all to online advertisers and trackers. Take control of your cookies before they take control of you.

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