Accepting cookies? Less innocent than you think


We all do it, accepting cookies without thinking when we visit a website. It seems quite harmless, but it is not. In fact, it is downright dangerous, according to human rights expert Professor Joe Cannataci. For his outstanding contribution to the protection of the right to privacy, Ghent University is awarding him the Amnesty International Chair.

What do tech companies find out when you click 'agree'?

Joe Cannataci: "Once you do that, some companies and the organisations that buy data from them can see and track what you do online. Big Brother is watching you, but for real. Our personal information is invaluable to companies. They deliberately make it very easy for website visitors to give consent, because they know that many people do not know exactly what they are agreeing to. Sometimes you also hear the argument: 'I have nothing to hide'. What people don't realise is that this makes them vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation. From the moment we give permission for our data to be used, we often don't know what happens to it afterwards. Suppose you take a DNA test online to find out who you are descended from, and in doing so you give permission for your data to be used. These companies make a lot of money off your most personal information, and you don't think about it when you click 'I agree'.”

Sometimes you hear the argument: 'I have nothing to hide'. What people don't realise is that this makes them vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation. From the moment we give permission for our data to be used, we often don't know what happens to it afterwards.
Joe Cannataci

Why is it so interesting for companies to track us?

"It's all about the money. By understanding our profile and selling the data, data buyers can influence our decisions. Especially our commercial and political ones. This influence can be pure manipulation, because those who buy the data only present us with what they think we want to hear or see. Propaganda in itself is not new, it already happened in the Old Testament (laughs). But through data, companies and politicians can get a very detailed picture of who their customers or voters are today. This allows them to spread their manipulative messages even more effectively.”

And that is dangerous.

“If you only see or hear the information you want, you end up in an echo chamber. You are no longer exposed to other opinions or perspectives. This limits critical thinking and increases polarisation. The lack of exchange of ideas is a danger to our democracy. It cripples our right to freedom of thought and freedom of expression, it undermines our autonomy. No one likes to be manipulated, do they?

To better protect these vital human rights, we also need to better protect our privacy online. Everyone has the right to keep personal information to themselves, or share it. You should be able to decide that for yourself. But when you click 'allow', you usually lose those choices about what you share and who you share it with.”

Why do we give up our privacy so easily?

“Everyone – or almost everyone – has a price, and many companies conveniently take advantage of that. Or maybe you just find it convenient to be targeted with messages that match your interests. Or you don't want to go through the hassle of setting your privacy settings every time.

Companies exploit this ease and convenience because they know exactly how the human psyche works. We always look for the path of least resistance, and that is usually a click away. We value our privacy until we go online.”

Shouldn't companies be legally protecting our data?

“Despite all the data protection laws, the internet is still a bit like the Wild West. Some companies offer a one-click option to reject all cookies, but many do not. They make you go through several steps to reject them, which discourages many users and encourages them to simply click ‘accept’. Don't be fooled by the smokescreens that many companies put up, under the guise of protecting your privacy. There is obviously a strategy behind the long and complicated privacy policies on websites that you are often asked to agree to. Unless you are a data scientist or IT lawyer, no one in the world knows exactly what they are agreeing to. Unfortunately, users are all too often tricked into giving up (part of) their privacy. Is it fair to treat your website visitors this way? The answer seems obvious to me.”

So what can we do about it?

“Very simple: just say no. Don't agree, don't consent, don't accept cookies,... It takes a bit more effort, but it's worth that extra minute of your time.”



Do you want to know more about the right to privacy? Joe Cannataci will receive the Amnesty International Chair on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, at the arts center VIERNULVIER in Ghent. In his lecture, Cannataci will explore several aspects of the fundamental right to privacy.

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