A cookie, also known as an HTTP cookie, web cookie, or browser cookie, is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored in a user's web browser while the user is browsing that website. Every time the user loads the website, the browser sends the cookie back to the server to notify the website of the user's previous activity. Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items in a shopping cart) or to record the user's browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited by the user as far back as months or years ago).
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These cookies are however reset if the expiration time is reached or the user manually deletes the cookie.
A secure cookie can only be transmitted over an encrypted connection (i.e. HTTPS). They cannot be transmitted over unencrypted connections (i.e. HTTP). This makes the cookie less likely to be exposed to cookie theft via eavesdropping. A cookie is made secure by adding the Secure flag to the cookie.
As of 2014, some websites were setting cookies readable for over 100 third-party domains. On average, a single website was setting 10 cookies, with a maximum number of cookies (first- and third-party) reaching over 800.
Most modern web browsers contain privacy settings that can block third-party cookies.
In 2002, the European Union launched the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications, a policy requiring end users' consent for the placement of cookies, and similar technologies for storing and accessing information on users' equipment. In particular, Article 5 Paragraph 3 mandates that storing data in a user's computer can only be done if the user is provided information about how this data is used, and the user is given the possibility of denying this storing operation.
Directive 95/46/EC defines "the data subject's consent" as "any freely given specific and informed indication of his wishes by which the data subject signifies his agreement to personal data relating to him being processed." Consent must involve some form of communication where individuals knowingly indicate their acceptance.
In 2009, the policy was amended by Directive 2009/136/EC, which included a change to Article 5, Paragraph 3. Instead of having an option for users to opt out of cookie storage, the revised Directive requires consent to be obtained for cookie storage.
In June 2012, European data protection authorities adopted an opinion which clarifies that some cookie users might be exempt from the requirement to gain consent:
Some cookies can be exempted from informed consent under certain conditions if they are not used for additional purposes. These cookies include cookies used to keep track of a user's input when filling online forms or as a shopping cart.
First-party analytics cookies are not likely to create a privacy risk if websites provide clear information about the cookies to users and privacy safeguards.
The industry's response has been largely negative. Robert Bond of the law firm Speechly Bircham describes the effects as "far-reaching and incredibly onerous" for "all UK companies". Simon Davis of Privacy International argues that proper enforcement would "destroy the entire industry".
Third-party cookies can be blocked by most browsers to increase privacy and reduce tracking by advertising and tracking companies without negatively affecting the user's web experience. Many advertising operators have an opt-out option to behavioural advertising, with a generic cookie in the browser stopping behavioural advertising.