Internet Cookies: What They Do and What to Do About Them

In 2011, a new law passed in the European Union requiring that websites notify site visitors of their use of Internet cookies and offer those visitors the option to accept or decline them.

This practice has since spread world-wide.

Now, chances are very good that, when you visit a website, you'll be prompted to accept or decline the site's cookies.

Perhaps that's caused you to think more about cookies and wonder what it is that they actually do.

What they do depends on what kind of cookie they are.

Some may be equipped with functionality that gathers more information about you than you would ordinarily be willing to give away and that data may end up being used in ways that infringe upon your privacy. 

Fortunately, it isn't difficult to block these tracking cookies.

Cookies come in two primary flavors

In its simplest form, a cookie is a data file deposited onto your device when you visit a website.

It includes a unique identifier used to identify you should you visit the site again.

It might also gather some information about what you did while on the site (i.e., what you shopped or searched for) or store some of your login information.

These are known as first-party cookies.

If you choose to decline these cookies on a particular site, access to the site may be restricted.

You're often given the option to read about site cookies and what they collect before deciding whether to accept or decline them.

In many instances, you can simply ignore the banner or popup, choosing neither to accept nor decline.

What the site does if you ignore the prompt would depend on how it is set up. In any event, these first-party cookies have been around a long time and are, in most cases, relatively harmless.

Over time, cookies have evolved.

Many now include tracking capabilities that follow you as you visit other sites, record what you do while on those sites and how long you stay, and gather information about you that can be used to target you with advertising.

These tracking cookies are typically third-party cookies, meaning they do not originate from the sites you actually visit, but rather are dropped onto your device as you browse the Internet.

These are the cookies that cause the most concern.

Tracking cookie details

First, tracking cookies do not infect your devices with malware, nor will they damage them.

If they did, that would defeat their purpose.

What they do is collect information about you and your online activities and provide it to data brokers, private industry (think retailers), governmental agencies, and news and social media sites.

The data collected is predominantly used to target you with advertising. It is, however, also used in ways that might be quite disturbing to those who value their privacy.

Using your device's IP address, data from multiple trackers can be consolidated and used to build a rather extensive personal profile.

“People search” sites will match and combine this data with information gathered from other sources, like public real property and tax records records available online from your local courthouse and information obtained from social media sites.

The resulting profiles can include your name, address, whether or not you own your home, your religious affiliation, the names of your neighbors, and much more. 

They and are sold online to anyone who wants them. If you value your privacy, this will likely incentivize you to take steps to block tracking cookies.

Blocking tracking cookies

If you're willing to switch to a different Internet browser, there are free privacy-based browsers available including Brave and Epic that block tracking cookies by default.

On its default landing page, Brave keeps a running count of the number of trackers it has blocked over time as well as the amounts of bandwidth and time you've saved as a result.

The Tor browser is another option, but, due to its history as a hacker's tool, Tor browser traffic is blocked in certain countries.

Following are steps you can follow to block third party cookies in browsers you may be currently using:

•   In Microsoft Edge, click on the three dots in the upper right corner and choose Settings. In the left-hand menu, select “Cookies and site permissions.” Toggle the switch to block third party cookies.

•   In Chrome, click the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and select Settings. Type “privacy” in the settings search box. You'll see options to block third party cookies while using the browser in Incognito Mode, to always block them regardless of mode, and to block all cookies all the time.

•   In Firefox, click on the three lines in the upper right corner. Select “Privacy and Security.” This will display a variety of browsing security options. If you choose the custom option, you'll find a setting in the dropdown menu to block all third-party tracking cookies.

In Conclusion

Personal privacy has become more of a concern for many, especially given the location tracking capabilities of portable devices, the increased frequency of massive data breaches, and the tracking of online activities.

While most first-party cookies are intended to improve your browsing experiences, third-party trackers are often used to gather much more data than you may have realized.

Understanding the issue and taking the steps recommended herein will allow you to better protect your privacy while you browse.