Beware perils of ‘Cookie Monster’

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A LEADING Sheffield lawyer is urging companies to beware of the ‘Cookie Monster’.

Joanne Bone, a partner in Irwin Mitchell’s business legal services team, says companies risk heavy fines and reputational damage if they use ‘cookies’ to collect information on people who visit their web sites.

Cookies are small pieces of data sent by a website to a visitor’s computer, stored by their web browser and sent back to the website if they revisit the site.

They can contain anything from details of the visitors preferences – including choice of language – to information that makes it easier for them to log back in.

Cookies are also used increasingly to monitor the internet activity and habits of users, obtain a huge amount of information for website operators, allowing them to display advertisements targeted to the visitor’s interests.

European laws which came into force last year require website operators to actually obtain consent for the use of cookies and will start being enforced by the UK regulator – the Information Commissioner – this year.

Ms Bone said: “The Information Commissioner’s ability to impose fines was strengthened in 2011 and so he has the potential to impose a fine of up to £500,000 for a breach.

“Although I think penalties of this scale are unlikely…the fines could still be significant. Organisations should also consider the reputational risk as a result of negative publicity arising from the involvement of the Information Commissioner.”