Browser cookies make people more cautious online, study finds

Website cookies are online surveillance tools, and the commercial and government entities that use them would prefer people not read those notifications too closely. People who do read the notifications carefully will find that they have the option to say no to some or all cookies.

The problem is, without careful attention those notifications become an annoyance and a subtle reminder that your online activity can be tracked.

As a researcher who studies online surveillance, I’ve found that failing to read the notifications thoroughly can lead to negative emotions and affect what people do online.

How cookies work

Browser cookies are not new. They were developed in 1994 by a Netscape programmer in order to optimize browsing experiences by exchanging users’ data with specific websites. These small text files allowed websites to remember your passwords for easier logins and keep items in your virtual shopping cart for later purchases.

But over the past three decades, cookies have evolved to track users across websites and devices. This is how items in your Amazon shopping cart on your phone can be used to tailor the ads you see on Hulu and Twitter on your laptop. One study found that 35 of 50 popular websites use website cookies illegally.

European regulations require websites to receive your permission before using cookies. You can avoid this type of third-party tracking with website cookies by carefully reading platforms’ privacy policies and opting out of cookies, but people generally aren’t doing that.

One study found that, on average, internet users spend just 13 seconds reading a website’s terms of service statements before they consent to cookies and other outrageous terms, such as, as the study included, exchanging their first-born child for service on the platform.

These terms-of-service provisions are cumbersome and intended to create friction.

Friction is a technique used to slow down internet users, either to maintain governmental control or reduce customer service loads. Autocratic governments that want to maintain control via state surveillance without jeopardizing their public legitimacy frequently use this technique. Friction involves building frustrating experiences into website and app design so that users who are trying to avoid monitoring or censorship become so inconvenienced that they ultimately give up.

Browser cookies explained.

How cookies affect you

My newest research sought to understand how website cookie notifications are used in the U.S. to create friction and influence user behavior.

To do this research, I looked to the concept of mindless compliance, an idea made infamous by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s experiments – now considered a radical breach of research ethics – asked participants to administer electric shocks to fellow study takers in order to test obedience to authority.


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