A guide to internet cookies and how you can control them
With the holidays right around the corner, many people are, like me, really looking forward to spending more time with family and friends. Another thing I'm looking forward to is the food we will be eating — specifically, the homemade cookies that are brought to these gatherings. A few can be a nice treat, but too many is always a bad thing for me.
The same can be said for the cookies that are dropped onto your computer or smartphone when you browse the internet. You will soon be flooded with different kinds of cookies, and there will be way more cookies than are good for you!
You know which cookies I’m talking about. That message that pops-up when you are browsing online asking you to “accept all cookies”? So, what do these internet cookies do?
What are cookies?
Cookies are little bits of code that a website will put in your web browser when you visit in order to keep track of what you do there and other information about you. They do all kinds of useful things – like remembering your preferences, what you put in your cart, or where you’re located – so that your web browsing experience can be better. Cookies are also the primary way advertisers track your activities on the internet in order to show you more targeted ads and offers.
Are cookies good or bad?
In short, cookies allow companies and websites to identify a device and remember it then next time that they see it. This can be good or bad, as it depends on how that information is being used. Keep reading to learn the basics.
Types of internet cookies
Internet cookies can be delivered by all sorts of different people. Most websites leave several cookies on a visitor’s device, but it’s worth understanding the differences between different kinds of cookies. .
First-party cookies are delivered to your device by the website that you are visiting. These can be helpful as they are used to remember your preferences, such as displaying the site in English, and allow the site to offer you a more personalized experience. They can also remember what is in your cart which is great for holiday shopping.
Third-party cookies are those which are placed on your device by advertisers and are used to track your device after you have left that website and continue to follow you around the web. They allow the advertisers to serve you with personalized ads. Think about a time when you looked at a certain item, like a shirt, on a shopping website, but didn’t buy it. Then you saw that shirt in an ad on your Facebook or Instagram feed. The cookies allow the advertisers to recognize your device when you visit other websites, and display their targeted ads. These cookies can persist on your device for over 30 days if you do not clear them yourself. Companies are starting to allow users to opt-out of third-party cookies, so advertisers are adapting to other tracking methods.
Another flavor of internet cookie is a session cookie. Session cookies are used when you log into a website by storing your login credentials every time you visit a particular site. Websites also use session cookies to improve site performance like fast page loads.
What kind of dangers can cookies pose?
If you’re a frequent internet user (and just about everyone is these days), it’s wise to understand the risks that cookies pose so that you can best determine when to delete them.
Privacy risk is the biggest concern for most people. It is typically not easy to discern exactly what data companies are collecting with cookies and who they are sharing that information with. Typically, advertisers and data brokers are the ones collecting information this way.
Why do I see all those messages asking me to “Accept all cookies?”
Over the past couple of years, you may have noticed that a majority of websites have started to include a pop-up message asking you to allow them to place cookies on your device. This is done to comply with data privacy laws which were designed to protect users’ personal information and force companies to state what data is being collected and how it is being used.
The basic idea being these laws is that companies need to tell internet users that their data is being collected and if it is shared or sold to other companies, and that they should be able to say no. If it is a company that you trust or if you prefer a more personalized browsing experience, then you may prefer to accept cookies.
How to control your cookies
Now that we have a better understanding of cookies and how they are used, we can review the best methods for controlling cookies on your devices thereby allowing you to control your privacy more effectively.
For cookies that are already on your device, you can clear them yourself. In most internet browsers, within their settings you are able to manually clear your cookies or enable it so that cookies are cleared every time you close your browser. To prevent cookies from being placed on your device in the first place, you can sometimes opt out of third party cookies within your browser settings or decide what cookies you want to allow on a particular website by interacting with the cookie banner on the site. Certain cookies that are necessary to the site's performance will not allow you to opt out, but other types such as those used for advertising will allow you to opt out.
Many companies, including Avast, offer services aimed at helping individuals protect their privacy by preventing tracking. One of our solutions is a free browser-extension called Avast Online Security & Privacy that is available on all major browsers. It can block tracking cookies for you as well as other types of tracking online and is a great way to increase your online privacy at no cost.
Keep in mind that by removing cookies you will encounter some inconvenience such as having to reenter certain information on websites since they will not remember you. On the plus side, you are less likely to feel like someone is following you online. As with the tasty cookies you may encounter this Holiday season, moderation is in your best interest, so keep those cookies under control.