Cookies: Where Does the Breadcrumb Trail Lead?

“This site uses cookies for a better browsing experience.”

You’ve seen this message a thousand times before. The website really wants you to press the “I Accept” button, often with an “I refuse” choice noticeably absent. The website implores you to read its “cookie policy”, but you’re not going to do that. Who reads the terms and conditions in this day and age? You accept anyways. Though most people don’t have the slightest clue what a browser cookie is, people will almost always click through and move on. 

What is a “cookie” and what does a “better browsing experience” even mean?

How Websites Track You

Data Privacy Day occurs every year on January 28th, which leads to the topic of this month’s article. How much of your data is truly private?

Let’s start with cookies. A cookie is a file that contains information about you. For instance, if you enter a username on a website and leave, the website can remember your username for the next time you visit. Websites use cookies to retain and track information about you between visits. Is this a bad thing? Not inherently.

Cookies are fundamental to maintaining user preferences such as language, timezone, and usernames, making it more convenient for the user. However, there is a reason why some regions such as California and the European Union require websites to disclose their cookie usage and to prompt users to accept cookies. 

Third-Party Cookies, The Browser’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookie 

Third-party cookies are a type of cookie tracked by websites that aren’t the ones you’re visiting. An example of this is an advertising company tracking what websites you’ve visited and showing you personalized ads based on that information. These cookies can even see multiple tabs on your browser, creating a trail of crumbs as you move from tab to tab, effectively giving them your browser history. 

Do third-party cookies make for a “better browsing experience”? Simply put, no. Unlike first-party cookies, which retain user information and preferences for convenience, third-party cookies are mostly used to display relevant ads. At its worst, third-party cookies can store your email and name, allowing websites to give your contact information to parties that can send you spam.

The Way The Cookie Crumbles

Cookie-Script is a website that can let you see how many first-party and third-party cookies a website uses. While it’s nice to view the cookies a website has, how do I get rid of them? Here’s how to disable third-party cookies while keeping useful first-party cookies.

  • On Chrome, Settings > Site Settings > Cookies and site data > Block third-party cookies

  • On Firefox, Settings > Privacy & Security > Enhanced Tracking Protection > Custom > All third-party cookies (may cause websites to break)

  • On Edge, Settings > Site permissions > Block third-party cookies

This way, advertisers and other groups can’t have access to your information!

So How Much Do They Really Know About You?

In conclusion, cookies can track almost everything you do on a website. This allows for convenience and most websites fail to work when you disable all cookies (They’re that important!). Trusted websites having access to your cookies isn’t at all harmful. It’s the third parties, advertisers, and malicious services accessing your browsing information through cookies that you should be looking out for! Fortunately, disabling third-party cookies should protect you.

By: Khoi Pham
February 2023


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