What Are Cookies?

Everyone is familiar with cookies: those lovely, warm, flavored slices of heaven. This article talks about Internet cookies, which have far less appeal and flavor yet still warrant a thorough explanation. Everyone interfaces with these virtual cookies, even if you can’t eat them.

Browser Cookies Are An Oddity

In this modern era, most internet users won’t even consider the cookies stored on their computer. Most people wouldn’t even know where to look for them, despite this process being a lot more common about a decade ago. Every cookie is a text file stored by your web browser on your computer or mobile device.

Every time you visit a website, you share personal information – device information, IP address, and so forth – with the server. Assuming you return later, the site may help you log in automatically or render information a bit quicker. 

While this may offer some convenience, it is crucial to understand internet cookies’ consequences, especially in the privacy department. 

They Are Tough To Avoid

As much as people may want to deny the existence of online cookies, one can’t access the internet without them these days. Every website seems to ask whether you will accept cookies or not, yet you never receive something to eat. Instead, the site will extract data from your browser and device as soon as you permit it to. 

More often than not, no one will bother to give the cookies policy a second glance. As human beings, we want access to the content as quickly as possible without having to wade through unnecessary bells and whistles. Additionally, many people see benefits in this option, as it helps them save items in an online shopping cart for later purposes, for example. 

To understand why so many people get worked up over cookies, one must understand what this technology does. 

Every cookie exists as a small file on one’s computer on behalf of a website you recently visited. Despite not coming with any flavor or sugar, these files are designed to help a server or website remember who visited and when. 

Additionally, these cookies can store extra information, such as users changing a site’s language, putting items in their shopping cart, and so forth. Through the stored information, your computer will send back this data to the website the next time you browse it. 

The Different Types Of Browser Cookies

Contrary to what many may think, no two browser cookies are identical. They can be divided into a few different categories, each of which has its own specific requirements and potential drawbacks. 

First-Party Cookies

This type of data stored will primarily apply to platforms that give users many customization options. Changing your font, switching background colors, or enabling dark mode, the cookie stores all of this information for future reference. Consider this a ‘saving your settings and preferences” type of approach. 

First-party cookies are persistent, which means they remain on your device at all times unless removed manually. The term “first-party” associates this information with a specific platform or website, as it pertains to that instance only. 

Third-Party Cookies

Unlike first-party counterparties, a third-party cookie is a different creature. One can associate this type with different platforms serving the same advertisements to the visitor. The entity providing the advertisements will store a third-party cookie for tracking purposes.

As a result, any site using advertisements by the same provider will be able to track your browsing habits. It erodes user privacy entirely, but escaping these “tracking cookies” is possible through ad blockers or alternative browsers such as Brave. 

Zombie Cookies

It may sound scary at first, but a zombie cookie will not start sucking out your brains. Instead, the term refers to third-party permanent cookies installed on your computer, even when you opt-out of data tracking altogether.

Similar to zombies, they tend to ‘rise from the grave” even after you remove them. 

A zombie cookie is a valuable tool for web analytics companies to track individual users’ browsing histories. Additionally, websites can sue them to ban specific visitors, such as bots, from reaccessing the platform. 

There isn’t much data any cookie can store on behalf of a website or browser in theory. More often than not, it contains less than ten code lines, which doesn’t necessarily unveil much information besides the cookie’s expiry date and the website it belongs to. 

Other data to be found includes a username you may have associated with that platform and any preferences you may have altered regarding colors, fonts, and so forth. 

What makes these files intriguing is their key-value pair system. It is a way for a website to associate certain information with specific users or IP addresses. Opting for this method can help users customize their experience accordingly. 

Removing these pieces of data from your browser or computer is often a safe approach. We will get into how to do this later on. It is essential to note that any customization settings you may have will disappear with the deleted cookie.

How They Erode Privacy

One often-heard comment is how internet cookies can erode users’ privacy. Although they seem to offer convenience in terms of customization more often than not, there is a price to pay for said convenience. Getting one’s experience streamlined isn’t inherently “bad”, but you will still share personal and device information with the website. 

At their core, browser cookies are designed to harvest personal data. For this reason, online platforms need to distinguish between users on different continents, as every region has its set of rules regarding this aspect.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is one example of how governments want to ensure cookies can’t erode user privacy even further. It is an ongoing process, and they may make changes to this “ruleset” in the future. 

The biggest culprit is the third-party cookie, which essentially creates a digital breadcrumb. Ever thought you kept seeing the same advertisements on multiple websites after you search Google for a new computer? That is a third-party tracking cookie in action. 

Another example is sharing content via social media. Regardless of you interacting with such buttons, they can still gather information about you and report it back to the provider. No one knows how much data one exposes while browsing the internet, which is somewhat problematic. 

Are There Virus Concerns?

For the uninitiated, cookies are incapable of introducing viruses, malware, spyware, ransomware, worms, or Trojans to your device. 

However, they can be used by cybercriminals as a way to hijack your browsing sessions and potentially redirect you to malicious websites. 

How To Rid Yourself Of These Evil Cookies

Although many people may not give them much thought, keeping internet cookies around for more extended periods isn’t necessarily a smart idea. It is often better to prevent any data logging completely. Doing so will not improve the browsing experience but also ensure you will not see the same advertisements repeatedly. 

Several options are available to prevent this type of data collection.

  • Do Not Track Request: a friendly suggestion for websites not to offer personalized content. It will not work too often but is an option. 
  • Installing browser plugins: Privacy Badger and Ghostery are two examples of plugins blocking unwanted tracking. Running too many plugins will slow down your internet browsing, though. 
  • Using A Different Browser: Users who are serious about online privacy can also use a different browser, like Brave. It blocks cookies and advertisements by default yet pays users for watching curated ads if they opt-in. 

Should none of these options appeal to you, there are ways to manually disable or remove all cookies. The video below explains how to do this for the most used browser on the market today. 

Will They Ever Go Away?

Given the skepticism privacy advocates have regarding browsing cookies, one may think a better solution is around the corner. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case yet. A fine line exists between tracking user behavior and taking away their online privacy altogether.

Even with solutions like GDPR in place, the uneasy situation remains. When more people switch to browsers such as Brave to directly block cookies and advertisements, advertising companies and website owners will have to develop other solutions. What these solutions may entail is anyone’s guess at this time.

Introducing a rating system ranking websites on how they handle user privacy is one option to explore. However, rating systems are easy to manipulate, and the creation of global standards may prove a lot more challenging than one may think. 

Until the situation changes, pop-up boxes asking you to accept or reject all cookies will remain present. 

Conclusion

There are many drawbacks to the cookie system on the internet, yet it also allows us to customize website experiences on many platforms. This trade-off between convenience and security/privacy is a personal decision everyone has to make for themselves.

Some people do not mind having their browsing activity tracked, as long as it allows them to turn on Dark Mode on some websites. Others want nothing to do with any of this cookies business and will vehemently oppose the system.

It is possible browsing cookies will disappear eventually and be replaced by a different system. For now, such an outcome seems unlikely, but one never knows what the future may bring. 

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