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What Are Cookies, and What Role Do They Play in Data Protection and Privacy?

3 min read
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Cookies are small text files that are stored on a user's device when visiting a website. They contain data that websites use to remember user preferences (e.g. their preferred language), track website usage (like browsing history and behavior). Based on this, brands can provide more personalized experiences and targeted advertising.

Typically, marketers use first-party or third-party cookies for these purposes, the latter which have caused controversy in recent years—so much so that Apple has already taken steps to limit them in Safari taken steps to limit them in Safari, and Google plans to discontinue support for them in Chrome. What makes third-party cookies so controversial? Let's look at the difference between each:

  • First-party cookies: These are cookies collected and stored on the servers of the website we're browsing. We know who is processing our information.
  • Third-party cookies: Unlike first-party cookies, these are stored on third-party servers, collected by code loaded on the website. We have no notion of where this information goes, nor how it is processed. This is the main problem.

As you can imagine, the unregulated use of cookies poses some privacy risks. It's possible for cookies to reveal sensitive information if not managed correctly, as they may contain personally identifiable information (PII) that could be used for tracking or profiling purposes. Some examples of PII that may be stored in cookies are: login credentials (username, email, ID number, phone number), location, user preferences, social network identifiers (in case the site offers to log in with social network credentials), among others.

How are cookies related to the consent banner?

Data protection regulations, such as the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), among others, require sites to obtain user consent before using cookies that track or collect personal data. Users have the right to refuse or manage our cookie preferences through browser settings or cookie consent notices.

Through these consent prompts, we are able to authorize or deny the storage of various types of cookies in a granular manner. Among these types, the most relevant to user privacy are ad cookies, and performance/analytics cookies.

Analytics cookies are those that identify unique users (if we consent to them) and allow for a correct behavioral analysis in platforms such as Google Analytics. Ad cookies are those that collect information about our interests, searches (keywords) and other such data.

In one of its latest measures to establish the trust with users, Google gave users the ability to consult their own ad profile as well as being able to see the how and why certain ads are shown to them, as part of the Advertiser Verification Program.

How can brands adapt to privacy changes?

Google offers a great solution for gaining user trust and consent: Consent Mode. This allows you to adjust the behavior of Google tags (whether it's an Analytics Google tag or GTM tag) according to user preferences. Another feature that Google provides is the ability of enabling the modeling option through machine learning, which allows you to fill the information gaps that appear when users don't provide consent—all with the help of AI.

For more details on how to implement Consent Mode and integrate a CMP with Analytics measurements, check out this very simple audiovisual tutorial. With this crash course in first-party cookies, third-party cookies and the differences between them, brands will have a better understanding of how they can adapt to regulatory and attitudinal changes in privacy.


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The website has been translated to English with the help of Humans and AI