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Cookies? Yumm. No, wait! We’re not talking about the scrumptious chocolate delicacy that’s loved by people of all ages. We’re talking about the millions of digital cookies scattered throughout the World Wide Web.
They aren’t, however, chocolaty, buttery, or crunchy as you’d expect them to be and can be used to invade your online privacy! Therefore, it’s important that you know what do cookies do and how you can protect yourself.
What Are Internet Cookies, Exactly?
I’ve been on the Internet too long a time to still not know what in the hell “cookies” are.
— Kevin (@Chug_A_Lugg) February 16, 2018
So what is a cookie, exactly? To put it in simple terms, Internet cookies – also commonly referred to as browser cookies, HTTP cookies, and web cookies – are nothing more than files saved on your computer or mobile device that consist of information sent by web servers when you first visit a website.
The term is derived from “magic cookies,” a packet of data received and sent back without being altered or changed. In fact, some also believe the name may have come from the story of Hansel and Gretel, where they leave a trail of cookie crumbs to find their way back through the forest.
What Do Cookies Do?
You may be wondering, “What do Internet cookies do?” The main purpose of Internet cookies is to identify returning visitors and provide a personalized user experience – by checking their past activity on the website – or save site login information.
“They track the user’s browsing actions and store the accompanying information, such as the personal data that the user relinquishes to online forms and what products the user has their eye on. When that user re-enters that site, his or her experience is tailored based on the information the cookie has collected,” explains Dearie.
When you visit a website for the first time, the web server sends a cookie to your browser which is then stored on your computer or mobile device for later use. The next time you visit the same website, the web server asks for and reads the cookie to load a customized version of the website for you.
This type of identification isn’t exactly a bad thing. For instance, Internet cookies are used by many online stores to build a user’s shopping cart as they explore different areas of the website. Without them, your shopping cart would be empty every time you click on a new link on the website.
However, even though Internet cookies were created for a very good reason, they’re used for a variety of purposes – and not all of them are ethical. They aren’t exactly harmful, but can be exploited by marketers, advertisers, or hackers for surveillance.
According to Dearie, “Many users are unaware that their online actions are being meticulously tracked by these digital invaders. Consumers may even be subject to having sensitive personal information – from credit card numbers to medical histories – collected and stored by cookies stored on their computer.”
Who Invented Internet Cookies?
In June 1994, a well-known computer programmer, Lou Montulli – an employee at Netscape Communications – got the idea of using magic cookies in web communications. At that time, he was developing an ecommerce application and had to find a way to hold the information of a user’s shopping cart without retaining partial transaction states on servers.
Cookies provided an easy solution to reliably creating a virtual shopping cart as it stored the information on a user’s computer instead. Montulli along with John Giannandrea wrote the initial cookie specification for Netscape soon after, and the beta version 0.9 of Mosaic Netscape became the first browser to support cookies in October of the same year.
What Are The Types Of Internet Cookies?
Now that you understand what an Internet cookie is, what it does, and who invented it, let’s take a closer look at the type of cookies you’re most likely to encounter:
1. Session Cookies
Session cookies – also called transient cookies or in-memory cookies – exist only while the visitor navigates through the website. They aren’t harmful as your information is recorded temporarily and will be erased upon closing the browser or quitting the session.
2. HttpOnly Cookies
3. Persistent Cookies
Persistent cookies – also sometimes known as tracking cookies – exist for a specific length of time or until they expire on a certain date. They’re used to collect information about your behavior on a particular website over a period of time.
4. Secure Cookies
Secure cookies can only be sent via HTTPS connections to ensure their information can’t be stolen by hackers on the user’s network. Since these cookies are encrypted, they’re more secure than most types of cookies.
5. Third-Party Cookies
Third-party cookies are stored on your computer or mobile device by a domain different from the one you’re visiting. These cookies, more often than not, are used by advertising networks to track your browser history so they can serve you relevant and targeted ads.
Supercookies – also known as Zombie Cookies – track and gather information about a user’s browsing habits and history. They can recreate deleted regular cookies and aren’t stored on your computer or mobile device, which makes them more privacy-invasive than other type of cookies.
Dearie highlights, “While cookies are inconspicuous by nature, they are nonetheless intrusive. These trackers collect both personal data and pseudonymous data, which supposedly cannot be attributed to a specific individual. However, when the pseudonymous data is accompanied by other information about the subject, it can easily be tied to a specific individual.”
How Do Internet Cookies Affect Your Privacy?
Did people really not know this? Privacy went with browser cookies. Be more worried about the guys who aren’t the CIA doing this.
— shodangb (@shodangb) March 10, 2017
Since tracking cookies are used to gather information about you without your authorization, they present a real threat to your online privacy. Tracking cookies like third-party cookies aren’t used to enhance your experience but rather to keep track of your activity across certain websites.
All this information can be used to create browsing history profiles, so you can be targeted with specific ads.
Also, did you know that malware and viruses can be disguised as Internet cookies? Supercookies can be sent by a hacker in control of a malicious website to potentially impersonate or interrupt legitimate user requests to another website with a similar public suffix or top-level domain.
This allows the hacker to fake login into the website as you and use your personal information for their nefarious purposes.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
“Internet cookies collect personal information so that businesses can tailor the customer experience to their unique needs and desires – and increase profits. From targeted advertising to suggested products, cookies allow for websites to preempt a user’s need and fulfill an unspoken request for that company’s goods and services,” emphasizes Dearie.
If you don’t like the idea of Internet cookies tracking every move you make online, there are a few steps that you can take to increase your privacy:
1. Use Your Web Browser’s Privacy Mode
When you use private browsing or incognito mode, your browser will not store Internet cookies or your browsing history. If your computer is shared by others, using your web browser’s privacy mode becomes even more paramount. Find out more here.
2. Use a Privacy-Friendly Search Engine
We’d highly recommend switching from Google to a more privacy-friendly search engine like DuckDuckGo. It doesn’t log user information, store IP addresses, or use Internet cookies to identify and track you.
3. Clear Your Browser Cookies
your browser, cookies continue to track information. This is your new mantra: Flush the cache, delete the cookies, protect your privacy.
— William K.⚡Santiago (@WilliamSantiago) July 24, 2017
You could just manually delete your browser cookies or set your browser to delete cookies automatically at the end of each browsing session. While you’ll have to enter your login credentials every time you login to websites, the good news is that your online activities will be less known by marketers, advertisers, and hackers.
4. Use a Virtual Private Network
By using an anonymous VPN service like PureVPN, you can stop your browsing preferences from being profiled with the help of Internet cookies. Not only will your IP address be masked with one of our 88,000 + IPs, but also military-grade 256-bit encryption will allow you to browse the Internet with an unbreakable cloak of anonymity!
Turning Internet cookies off permanently would make navigation on certain websites difficult. However, by limiting tracking cookies and supercookies through the methods we’ve discussed above, you can prevent the invasion of your privacy online and go about your activities with at least some peace of mind.