And whether you should block or allow them.
Recently, the conversation about digital privacy has focused on a rather confusing concept. By now you’ve probably heard of cookies (the digital kind, not the chocolate chip kind), but you’re certainly not alone if you don’t fully understand what they are.
Believe it or not, cookies have been around since the 90’s and have become an important part of our web browsing experience. Let’s say you’re shopping on Amazon and add a few items to your cart. You will then be distracted and close this window to check your Facebook or watch the new season of stranger things. When you return to Amazon, you will find that your shopping cart is still full and ready for checkout. That’s thanks to cookies, explains Joseph Steinberg, cybersecurity expert and author of Cyber security for dummies.
wait, what are cookies?
Cookies are files that record your activity and are sent to your phone, tablet or laptop from a web server when you visit that server’s website. Your device stores these cookies so that the server recognizes you as a user when you return to the website. This allows websites to keep a log of your activity on their site so they can remember your preferences or keep you logged in.
At least that was the original intention. But they’re also now being used to track your behavior online — not just on specific websites, which is why they get such a bad rap, says Patrick Jackson, the CTO of Disconnect, a Bay Area-based company that develops online privacy software. These are so-called third-party cookies, which are generated by websites that are different from the websites you are currently using. Third-party cookies are usually stored on your browser via advertisements or even features such as a Facebook “Like” button that appear on websites you visit.
Companies such as data brokers or advertising technology companies may use this information to build a profile about you. This data is valuable for marketers who want to know about your shopping habits or your favorite brands so they can learn what things you might want to buy and serve you targeted ads to entice you. (This explains why, say, after you’ve bought a new crew-neck sweater online, crew-neck sweater ads seem to follow you online.) But your browsing data can reveal more than just your preference for Adidas over Nike. for example. By tracking when you’re online, they can determine your sleep habits, or by tracking which news sites you visit, they can guess your political affiliation, Jackson says.
“There are companies that collect this data and sell it to whoever,” he says. “And they don’t care if they’re using it for targeted advertising or for some nefarious purpose — it could be used for anything.” That really is the ugly side of cookies.”
Some efforts have been made to counteract this. The strictest set of rules to date, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), was recently enacted in the EU (you’ve probably noticed that over the last few years the vast majority of websites have a pop-up asking you to accept their cookies (That’s because of the GDPR.) California also has its own law, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which came into effect in 2020 and governs the sale of data.(Any company that sells data must give users the option to opt out by adding a “Do not sell my information” button on their sites.) But by and large, selling digital profiles is legal in the US.
Should you allow or remove cookies?
As we mentioned earlier, cookies have really shaped the way we use the internet and removing them can make browsing a lot more tedious. You won’t even be able to fully use some websites if you disable them.
“So you don’t necessarily want to block all cookies,” says Steinberg. However, you should consider whether you want a particular website or app to have your data and use that to determine whether or not to accept their cookies.
There are also other measures you can take, such as clearing your cache and cookies from time to time, which would clear all third-party tracking cookies. (A cache is a collection of files that your browser stores from web pages you have visited to speed up your experience on those websites. It’s also a good general practice to clear your cache from time to time as this will help may free up some disk space on your devices.) Check out PCMag’s guide on how to do this on different browsers.
For iPhone users, Jackson recommends using a privacy feature called “Ask App not to Track,” located in your device’s settings. (CNet has a helpful tutorial on how to enable this.)
Another simple step you can take is to use a browser with strong privacy settings, like Safari or Firefox, Jackson says. Firefox recently introduced its Total Cookie Protection feature, which prevents third-party cookies from tracking you across the web without completely blocking cookies.
Ultimately, however, cookies are just one of a myriad of tools companies have at their disposal to monitor their activity. So simply blocking cookies won’t make you invisible on the web. And most importantly, while they get a lot of negative attention, they’re not necessarily a bad thing, says Steinberg. Cookies save you from having to log in to Netflix every two hours and help news sites remember your preferences so you can see more about the topics that interest you. Who knows, those targeted ads might even lead you to that perfect crew-neck sweater.
“There’s always a trade-off when it comes to using a website or an app,” says Jackson. “The more you know about this tradeoff, the better decisions you can make.”