Cookies affect your privacy online
These days, when you go to almost any website, you’ll immediately see a banner at the bottom of the screen asking you to “accept all cookies.” Typically, users agree, to get rid of the annoying text box without delay. Lots of people don’t know if they can decline these mysterious cookies or how to configure them. Kaspersky decided to conduct an experiment and show how to control cookies and what happens if you don’t bother.
What are cookies, and what do you do with them?
Every website collects information about you and your activities and stores the information on your device in the form of small files. Those files are called cookies.
Cookies basically do three things:
- Make the website more convenient for users,
- Help the website work more reliably,
- Track visitors’ activities
Cookies identify you to a website and save your settings (if any). For example, a hotel reservation website can remember what currency you chose to pay in, and if you check the ‘Remember Me’ option on a social network’s login page, you won’t need to enter your username and password every time you visit. When you return to the website, it checks your device for associated cookies, recognizes you, and automatically lets you access your account.
However, in addition to having features that are useful for website visitors, cookies enable services to harvest user data to make suggestions based on them and, of course, display targeted ads. Such cookies may belong not just to the owners of the website but also to companies with which they have entered into partnership agreements. The latter are called third-party cookies, and they are the reason many say cookies are just tracking tools.
In an effort to get to whatever brought them to the website, users may click ‘OK’ or ‘Accept’ immediately — so they can close that annoying window, even if it means allowing who-knows-who to collect who-knows-what information. Some people may carefully read that notification, but far fewer take the next step and configure the site’s cookies.
Developers tend to encourage users to click the Accept all option, making that button big and bright, and its companion, Customize settings, less noticeable. The attempts by some websites to complicate cookie management have already drawn the attention of privacy advocates.
Disable cookies in the browser settings
Now, you can reject cookies in a website’s settings. But, doing that every time is inconvenient, and it gets tiresome. Fortunately, there’s another solution. You can block third-party (i.e., mostly advertising) cookies or disable all cookies in your browser’s settings. Admittedly, if you disable all cookies, some websites will not function reliably.
Instead, keep in mind that a lot of browsers offer an incognito mode. Enabled, the mode allows websites to install cookies, but the browser automatically deletes them when you close the incognito window. This is helpful if, for example, you need to get online from a computer that isn’t yours and so browser cookie settings aren’t up to you.
Cookies aren’t the only trackers
All of these settings, blocks, and modes are meant to prevent others from tracking us. Kaspersky has gotten to the bottom of cookies, but are the settings sufficient to completely protect from tracking? Unfortunately, they are not: Websites have a surprising number of other ways to track users.
To summarize: Kaspersky’s experiment showed the most effective solution is not to deal with the settings of each website, but to configure everything right in the browser — use the settings menu to block the cookies. If you need to, you can make exceptions for some websites. And to protect yourself from other tracking attempts, set up Private Browsing.