Control your cookies: Everything you need to know about internet cookies

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If you’re an avid internet user, you’ve likely heard of internet cookies. Unlike the beloved dessert, though, these cookies are invisible — and slightly controversial. On the plus side, cookies can help improve your online browsing experience; however, they can also put your personal information at risk.  
To ensure you’re keeping your cookies in check, you need to understand what cookies are and how they work. Read on to learn whether or not internet cookies are bad, and how you can better protect your privacy.

What are internet cookies?  

Cookies are small data files that save information in your local web browser. Like most online inventions, cookies were designed to make internet browsing easier and faster, in part by remembering your online preferences. Cookies store tiny bits of text on everything from your favorite websites to your account passwords.
They’re responsible for a host of helpful actions, including filling in the URL of websites you’ve visited before, remembering the items you have in your virtual shopping cart, and auto-populating your personal information in online forms.   

The benefit of cookies

The biggest appeal of cookies is that they save you time and brainpower. Not only do they make internet browsing quicker and more convenient, but they also make it more straightforward.   

With cookies, you don’t have to remember the URL of your online news subscription, nor do you have to remember and type out your different account usernames and passwords each time you want to access an online portal.

The drawback of cookies 

As technology has advanced, cookies have become more complex. The latest version of cookies, called tracking cookies, can hinder your online privacy. Using tracking cookies, websites can collect information on users by monitoring and recording their online behavior.   

Tracking cookies can collect a variety of personally identifiable information (PII), including your:

  • Location  
  • Browsing history  
  • Browsing preferences  
  • Online purchases  
  • Profile information  
  • Account usernames  
  • Credit card details

Websites can then use the information tracking cookies gather to create targeted ads for users — sometimes instantaneously. You might search for a pair of shoes on an ecommerce site, for example, only to jump over to your favorite blog and immediately see an ad for the same shoes you were just looking at. Ad targeting like this is the result of tracking cookies.

Of course, you may enjoy receiving personalized ads on occasion, but having your movements tracked — especially without your permission — can feel invasive.

Different types of cookies

Just like their culinary counterpart, internet cookies come in different forms. The purpose of all cookies — to save information — is the same, but each version of cookies functions slightly differently.

Here are the three types of cookies you’re most likely to encounter online:  

1. Session cookies  

Session cookies are temporary cookies that only store information for a particular browsing session. These types of cookies save information based on your unique movements within a website. For example, if you’re shopping online, session cookies will save the items you add to your cart. Session cookies are usually deleted once you close your browser or complete the session.

2. Persistent cookies

True to their name, persistent cookies — also called first-party cookies — store information for longer periods of time. Persistent cookies are created and controlled by the hosts of the websites you visit. Websites employ these cookies to help remember users’ online preferences, like login information and language settings, and create a better user experience. The cookies only get deleted once they reach their expiration date, which is set by the website.   

3. Third-party cookies

Third-party cookies, also known as tracking cookies, are designed to collect information on users. Unlike persistent cookies (first-party cookies), which are created and controlled by the site domain, third-party cookies are created and controlled by outside parties.   

Here’s how it works: Many websites require the use of a third-party app or service to enhance the site’s functionality. A website that has live chat options or video graphics might use a third-party service, for example. The third-party host then sets the cookies on the particular domain.

Then, when you browse that website, third-party cookies track your online behavior, gathering information on your interests, age, job, location, shopping habits, and search patterns.

The third-party host who created these cookies can then send or sell them to advertisers for marketing purposes. Advertising companies might use tracking cookies for a number of purposes, including customer profiling, cross-site tracking, and ad retargeting.   

Are internet cookies bad?

Internet cookies aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they do a lot of good. In addition to facilitating online browsing, cookies also help website hosts give users a better online experience. What’s more, some people appreciate receiving personalized ads and suggestions via tracking cookies.  

That said, tracking cookies can contribute to the spread of your personal information, which can lower your overall privacy and make you more vulnerable to a data breach.

If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of tracking cookies monitoring your digital activity, there are a couple of easy ways you can improve your privacy.   

How to control your cookies

Follow these two steps to manage your cookies and boost your protection.

1. Reconfigure your browser settings

Changing your browser’s settings is a simple way to protect your privacy. Most browsers have a default setting that automatically allows the use of third-party cookies, but you can disable this setting in just a few clicks.

Blocking third-party cookies prevents third-party servers and sites from gathering and analyzing your personal information. Not only does this help protect your PII, but it also reduces the amount of targeted ads you’re likely to see online.

To change your browser settings, follow these instructions:

  • Chrome: Go to Preferences, then click Settings in the top left-hand corner. Go to Advanced, then go to Privacy and Security. Under Content Settings, click Cookies, then enable the option to block third-party cookies. If you like, you can also disable the features that save and autofill your credit card information, addresses, and passwords.
  • Safari: Apple automatically enables this setting, but it’s smart to double-check to ensure you have the level of privacy you want. Go to Preferences, then click Privacy. Under Cookies and Website Data, you can check one of three boxes to limit cookies: 1) Always block 2) Allow from websites I visit and 3) Allow from current website only.

  • Firefox: Click the menu button, go to Privacy and Security, then go to Content Blocking. Click Custom, check the box marked Cookies, then select the option that says All third-party cookies.

2. Use incognito mode

Incognito mode, also known as private mode, is a browser function that offers you more privacy while you explore the internet.

When you go online using a standard browsing mode, the browser saves your session and persistent cookies. When you use incognito mode, though, the browser doesn’t store any of your information.

Each time you open a private window, you have a clean slate with none of your preferences saved. Then, when you close your private window, your search history and session cookies are deleted.

The benefit of browsing in incognito mode is that companies don’t have access to your cookies, which means they can’t collect as much of your PII. As a result, you may see fewer targeted ads and suggestions.

However, keep in mind that using private mode doesn’t prevent all data tracking. Websites and internet service providers still have records of your visits, and can gather your personal information in other ways.

Your privacy, your choice

Cookies are a helpful internet function, but they can also reduce your privacy. If you want more protection over your personal information, FigLeaf can help. Our all-in-one privacy tool is designed to give you the level of privacy you want — without sacrificing your online experience. With FigLeaf, you can block trackers, browse the internet privately, and choose how visible you want to be on any given site.

Author: FigLeaf Team