Browser cookies and your privacy

This is part of the series on privacy in the digital world.

You've probably heard/read these words in the same sentence: browsers, cookies, and your privacy. Most geeks and Klingons alike, aka technologists, will say there are multiple types of browser cookies but we'll condense them into first-party and third-party cookie categories.

For more than a decade, through my work, I observed "convenience" to be the number one reason for browser cookies to exist from a user's perspective. Conveniences such as being able to open a browser to check your email without having to remember the password to log into your account. First-party cookies enable you to do just that. They also enable you to have a personalized browsing experience based on what you have done while on that website. These first-party cookies are fed to your browser by the website you are visiting.

The same websites you visit can also feed your browser third-party cookies and these include cookies for tracking and collecting your internet browsing activities (geeky terminology: cross-site tracking cookies) that can be sold for marketing and other purposes.

Many websites have advertisements. These advertisers are considered third-parties to the website you initially visited and will feed your browser third-party cookies – regardless of whether you actually click those advertisements (link/pictures/videos) or not.

If you use Mozilla's Firefox browser, the default cookie setting (aka "Standard" option) already blocks some of the third-party cookies, mainly the cookies that track your browsing activities. Currently that is not the case with Google's Chrome browser and you'll need to make changes in the browser's "Settings" page. Note that Google uses a different terminology – you need to flip-the-switch on the "Send a 'Do Not Track' request with your browsing traffic" option so the browser tries to block the tracking cookies.

So, then, why don't we just configure our browsers to block "all" third-party cookies, including tracking cookies, and call it a day? Wish it was that simple! Unfortunately, there are websites that don't show up properly when all third-party cookies are blocked. This means it can become trial-and-error but the good news is that if you find one of your favorite websites broken when the browser is set to block all third-party cookies, you can enter that website's address in the exceptions list so the browser does not block third-party cookies from websites on your exceptions list (geeky term: whitelisting).

Select countries across-the-pond have the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) law which enforces protection of privacy of individuals from EU member countries when they are browsing; there is no equivalent stateside other than some state regulations.

In the next column we'll finish talking about third-party cookies, including some instructional overviews of how to make these changes in Chrome and Firefox browsers. We'll also start talking about other ways the companies can track our internet activities sans cookies. Yes, you read that right – tracking your internet activities without relying on cookies.

Tak Sato

Strategist and technologist with over 30 years of experience in the private sector. Holds Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Science and Executive MBA from Cleveland State University.

As Founder of the Center for Aging in the Digital World, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit empowering seniors with digital literacy, Tak connects the dots to help people utilize appropriate technology in their personal and professional lives while using digital literacy as a tool for seniors to avoid loneliness and social isolation

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Volume 14, Issue 9, Posted 10:30 AM, 05.03.2022