What is a cookie?

A cookie is a small file containing a string of characters that is sent to your computer, lap-top, mobile, tablet etc  by a script on a website when you visit it. The cookie helps the website understand how to provide the right service for you or to make the website work better. It is stored in the browser you are using (Firefox, IE, Opera, Safari, Chrome etc)

When you visit the website again, the cookie allows that site to recognize your browser. Cookies may store user preferences and other information. Cookies pose no risk since they do not contain any code – so can’t act as a virus in any form or spy on your PC content to compromise security.

You can set your browser to refuse all cookies or to indicate when a cookie is being stored. However, some website features or services may not function properly without cookies.

What are they used for?

The most widely used cookie use is for Google Analytics scripts which a great number of websites use to get statistics about visitor numbers and behaviour.  Google says   “Like many services, Google Analytics uses first-party cookies to track visitor interactions. These cookies are used to store information, such as what time the current visit occurred, whether the visitor has been to the site before, and what site referred the visitor to the web page. Browsers do not share first-party cookies across domains." Google Analytics doesn’t do anything to identify you personally.

Other uses for cookies are to store your preferences e.g. language, location, currency. The website puts a cookie on your browser and next time you go to that website you won’t have to make the selections again. they can also store your user name and password (encrypted of course). So if the site (rather than your browser) asks “Save your log-in info?” it will be using a cookie.

Some cookies are just used for the duration of your web visit and are deleted as soon as you close the browser, navigate to another site or leave the page open for more than a few minutes.

These are all “first party” cookies - set by the website you are interacting with. However websites are often made up from various sources from different domains, e.g. weather report, news feed, an advertising network or a streaming video service like YouTube,  this third party may read and write their own cookies or similar technologies onto visitors devices and these are called “third party” cookies.

How do I know what cookie are stored on my computer / lap-top / phone?

Cookies are stored by the browser you are using, so you need to check out each browser you use.

  • Firefox (Classic): Tools Menu > Page Info > Security Tab > View Cookies
  • Firefox:   Menu > Options > Privacy > Remove Individual Cookies (select your website)
  • Internet Explorer: Press F12 > Cache Menu > View Cookie Information
  • Chrome: Spanner icon > Tools > Developer Tools > Cookies
  • Safari:  Settings menu > Preferences > Privacy tab > Details button > search for the current site domain in the search box
  • Opera: Settings menu > Preferences > Advanced tab > Cookies Menu > Manage Cookies (find your site)

similar for other browsers.

What about the ICO directive about cookies?

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued changes to the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations which take effect on 26th May and UK websites have to comply. See the ICO site

The directive on cookies is that users should be warned about the use of cookies on a site - before the page opens up and any cookies are posted - and asked if they agree to cookies being used. If they don’t agree then the code using cookies must be disabled or the user directed elsewhere. You will see how the ICO do it when you go on their page above.

It’s not clear how the proposals can be implemented without too much intrusion into the operation of the website - especially where a web page delivered to the end user is served from several domains. These things will be worked out in time or maybe just go away. The general view is that if you’re just using cookies for Analytics it’s OK to post a notice or a link to a notice at the top of the page explaining that’s what you’re doing. This could be done as part of the website privacy statement, terms and conditions, copyright statements etc.

As a minimum

  1. There should be a link towards the top of each page of your site saying something like “How we use cookies” or “Terms of this website inc cookies”
  2. Include a brief explanation of cookies possibly with links to further information for those that care. e.g. how to turn off cookies on each browser.
  3. List what cookies your site uses – probably just Google Analytics but maybe for advertisements if you use an adserver or Google Ads.

The ICO offer some suggestions on

There are various scripts being developed to address this and I will update this section when I’ve had a chance to review some of them.

Another option is not to use any services or scripts that use cookies. This would mean losing Google Analytics (or other stats-gathering service). You could rely on your ISP’s stats programs based on the log files, however, you will not get the “returning visitors” stats because without the cookie it won’t be quite so easy to identify visitors who have been before.

If you need any help please call me.


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