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What are internet cookies and how do they work?

What are web cookies

In the internet world, cookies are an essential piece of data. They make your browsing experience much more convenient. On the other hand, these files filled with personal information can be used to invade your privacy.

If you don’t learn how to spot the difference between various cookies and manage them, they may even become harmful. Advertisers send targeted ads based on your stored cookies, and some of these can be used to track your online movements. Worst case scenario – if cybercriminals get access to certain types, you can even be spied on.

Let’s learn about browser cookies together and how they affect your online identity. And how to deal with them efficiently once you know the gist of it. After all, there are reliable tools that help solve the rampart cookie problem.

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What are cookies?

HTTP cookies, also known as browser cookies, internet cookies, and web cookies, are blocks of data stored on your computer and mobile device. They contain information such as usernames, passwords, items added to the shopping cart, etc.

So, on their own, internet cookies aren’t harmful. Most types make your time on the internet easier and ensure certain websites work as intended. But that can’t be said about every kind of cookie.

How do internet cookies work?

Think of a cookie as a piece of text that an internet server stores on a user’s computer. For example, a website generates a unique ID number for every user visiting the website. This ID is then stored on the visitor’s device using a cookie file. The browser then sends the cookie file back to the same server the next time the user visits or references that specific webpage.

Many websites use this technique. A good example of this is Amazon.com. When a customer orders a book, they fill out a form with their personal details, Amazon attaches an ID to that personal information and stores both. It then sends the ID to the individual’s browser in the form of a cookie, which gets stored on the computer’s hard disk.

Every time you visit Amazon, the ID will be sent to the server and checked against the database before being sent back. On the page, you may see something like, “Welcome back, Steve Brown!”

What are internet cookies used for?

A website utilizes cookies for several different reasons:

  • Personalization. Web cookies help websites remember your preferences. It involves such things as your chosen settings, username, age, gender, location, interests, etc.
  • Session management. Browser cookies contain a unique string of letters and numbers associated with the user. And as you’re browsing a particular website, they fetch data relevant to you. For example, this is why you don’t have to log into your account every time you open a new Amazon page.
  • Tracking. Some cookies log information about what pages you visit, what you’re searching for, what device you’re using, the search engine, time spent on the page, and such. In essence, your activity is recorded and usually used to display personalized ads.

Types of cookies

While cookies have the same general function, they can be utilized for different purposes. Depending on their use, cookies are categorized into different types.

Session cookies

A session cookie allows a website to recognize a visitor and see what they are doing as they click through different pages. These are temporary and last only as long as the browser is open. Once you close it, session cookies are deleted automatically.

Take, for example, an e-commerce site. It uses these cookies to remember the items a customer placed in their shopping cart during previous visits to the site. If it weren’t for them, you’d find that the shopping cart is empty at the time of “Checkout.” All because the shopping activities within the previous pages couldn’t be remembered otherwise.

Persistent cookies

Persistent cookies, or permanent cookies, make sure that a site remembers you for future visits. Unlike session cookies, these are stored on your hard drive for some time or until you delete them manually.

Such cookies, for example, help keep you logged into your account. This way, you don’t have to re-enter your login details whenever you return to a specific site. Persistent cookies also track your movements online. Because of it, they can be used to build a unique user profile that websites refer to when recommending their services and products.

First-party cookies

The cookies a website sends directly to your browser are known as first-party cookies. They are identified by the site’s domain name and are used to improve your experience. Usually, these are harmless as long as you’re accessing trustworthy websites.

Third-party cookies

Third-party cookies originate from other sources interested in the website you visited, for example, advertisers. These tend to be challenging to identify since they can be attached to the site’s banners, ads, videos, and scripts. Such web cookies allow advertisers to track how often people view their ads and how they behave within the website.

Supercookies

A supercookie is a type of tracking cookie. However, it tends to be more pernicious and very difficult to deal with. It can be stored on users’ computers or online. With a supercookie, a piece of information unique to the user gets inserted into the HTTP header.

Google Ads, for example, is a case where supercookies are used. Google takes the browsing data gleaned from these cookies and displays ads closely matching the individual’s preferences. For instance, car enthusiasts are very likely to get advertisements related to this topic on websites that have nothing to do with cars.

While regular cookies will be erased when you clear your browser’s data, it’s a different matter with a supercookie. All because they are stored in different places. As such, clearing your browser data will not help eliminate supercookies.

Zombie cookies

A zombie cookie tracks your online activities, including the websites you’re visiting. As such, unidentifiable parties can keep watch over your activities. The problem with these cookies is that they can recreate themselves whenever you delete them.

Can internet cookies be dangerous?

what are internet cookies

Do cookies pose privacy issues? Internet users should not perceive them as a direct threat to security and privacy. Web cookies themselves don’t keep private data, and they don’t transfer malware. However, they can indirectly result in privacy and security issues.

Cookie profiling, also known as web profiling, is when third parties use persistent cookies to track all your online actions. Several tracking cookies watch the user’s activities for a certain period and compile the data into a profile. Advertisers can use it to send targeted ads based on demographic data and other statistical information.

And although cookies don’t transfer malicious software, some malware and viruses may be disguised as cookies. This is why you should know what third-party cookies are and what they do.

How to clear cookies?

You’ll need to open your browser to manage these cookies since this is where they are stored. Each browser caches cookies in a different location. Just remember that after you clear the cookie cache, you’ll have to re-enter your login credentials on most websites.

How to clear cookies on Chrome

  1. Open the Chrome browser and click on the drop-down menu
  2. Navigate to the Settings and head to the Privacy and security tab
  3. Select Clear browsing data, check all the boxes you want, and press Clear data
  4. Head to the Cookies and other site data tab and check all the settings you want that block cookies

How to clear cookies on Firefox

  1. Open the Firefox browser and click on the three lines up top to open the menu
  2. Go to the Settings and navigate to the Privacy & Security tab
  3. Scroll down until you find the Cookies and Site Data section
  4. Press on Clear Data, check all the boxes you want, and confirm with Clear
  5. You can also block cookies and customize which trackers to disable in the same tab

How to clear cookies on Edge

  1. Open the Microsoft Edge browser and press on the three dots to open the menu
  2. Press on Settings and go to Privacy, search, and services
  3. Scroll until you find Clear Browsing Data, click Choose what to clear, and then check everything you want to delete. Press Clear now to confirm it.
  4. Then on the sidebar, navigate to Cookies and site permissions. Select Manage and delete cookies and site data and change the settings to block cookies.

How to clear cookies on Safari

  1. Open the Safari browser and then click on Safari on the navigation bar
  2. Select Preferences and head to the Privacy tab
  3. Press Manage Website Data and delete any cookies you want. To erase all of them, select Remove All.
  4. You can block all cookies on the same tab

How to protect yourself from supercookies

supercookies

Supercookies are a threat and may even be seen as the next generation of internet tracking. These store your information and regenerate the usual cookies you’ve deleted from your device. It wouldn’t be such a problem if they weren’t used maliciously by third parties without user consent.

For example, Verizon was fined $1.35 million in 2016 for tracking customers by utilizing supercookies. It was done with Verizon’s UIDH (Unique Identifier Header) tracking, and the customers who knew about it could opt out. However, there were incidents where the company used cookies to exploit customer data for marketing purposes.

Supercookies aren’t stored on the computer since they’re injected between the device and the connecting server. Even ad-blocking software cannot block it as it occurs after the user’s requests leave a device. However, you can prevent supercookies from tracking you by encrypting your connections by routing internet traffic via Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

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Top 3 VPN browser extensions against cookies

Besides apps that secure your internet connection, reliable VPN providers also offer browser extensions that encrypt everything happening on these applications. Because of this, various web cookies can’t track you, thus, they can’t be used against you by third parties. Cookies won’t be a problem with VPN add-ons from these services:

  1. NordVPN. You can get the add-on on Edge, Firefox, Brave, Opera, Chrome, and Chrome-based browsers. It comes with the complete server list, Threat Protection Lite for blocking ads and malicious websites, and the auto-connect feature. Furthermore, it protects against WebRTC leaks and includes split tunneling.
  2. Surfshark VPN. Subscribers can download the VPN extension on Opera, Brave, Firefox, Edge, Chrome, and Chrome-based browsers. You get CleanWeb for battling ads and malware, WebRTC leak protection, Bypasser (split tunneling), and a cookie popup blocker. Users can also utilize specialized servers – Static IP for keeping the same VPN IP address and MultiHop for double the encryption.
  3. ExpressVPN. The VPN add-on is available on Firefox, Edge, Brave, Opera, Safari, Chrome, and Chrome-based browsers. Users can control it from the native Windows app, and the extension comes with 3 main features. They’re HTML5 geolocation spoofing, WebRTC blocking to avoid leaks, and HTTPS Everywhere for secure website access.

They also work great for changing your IP address if you want to make it look like you’re exploring the web from another region. Just keep in mind that they only work on the browser level. Sure, it’s enough to stop cookies, but if you want to fully shield yourself from online surveillance, we recommend running full-fledged apps from trustworthy VPNs in tandem.

Conclusion

Web cookies are like a double-edged sword. They aren’t inherently harmful since cookies help speed up browsing by remembering your internet history, login info, and such. On the other hand, due to their nature, these can be used to invade your privacy.

Supercookies and zombie cookies present a significant threat to the security of your devices. Understanding cookies can help you protect yourself from the dangerous ones.


You may also like to read:
What is internet censorship
What is IP geolocation
Is hotel Wi-Fi safe
Dark web vs deep web
Best Google Chrome extensions for security
Best private search engines


FAQ

What is a cookie on the internet?

An internet cookie is a block of data stored on your device. Consisting or random strings of numbers and letters, they contain information about your visits to websites. We’re talking about such data as settings, usernames, viewed pages, time spent on sites, etc.

Should I accept internet cookies?

Depends on the cookie. First-party cookies are usually necessary for the site to function properly, so they’re safe. Other types of web cookies, such as tracking or third-party ones, can be used to monitor you, so it’s best to avoid them.

Can cookies track you?

Yes, all cookies can track you. First-party cookies only log what you’re doing on the website to ensure everything works as intended. Third-party cookies can track you across multiple websites and create unique profiles used to send targeted ads.

Why do websites use cookies?

Websites use cookies to better cater to the interests of the people visiting them. Almost every major site uses internet cookies, so you’re bound to run into them plenty of times while browsing.

Can cookies be blocked or deleted?

Yes, you can block cookies and delete them by clearing the web cache they’re stored in. The best way to prevent cookies from tracking you is by encrypting your browsing efforts with secure VPN add-ons.

5 comments
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  1. 112Nikky April 18, 2019 at 11:30 am

    I have acted out of nativity on this cookies stuff and guess what!? I paid handsomely for my ignorance. At the time, I needed cookies to make my internet better interesting but I could barely define what I wanted. Boom! I landed the harmful cookies and got my device in a mess


  2. Luis Lima Pinto February 14, 2019 at 2:22 pm

    Just like there are good monsters (Cookie Monster) and bad monsters (Dracula), there seem to be good cookies (chocolate chip) and bad ones (zombie cookies). I had a very basic understanding of cookies but this helped me understand the variety out there, what they mean, and how to deal with them.


  3. Elise Weather February 5, 2019 at 1:59 am

    I reallly wish there was a way to get out of deleting my cookies. It takes me forever to remember my passwords and always stresses me out.


  4. TheColorIsRed November 25, 2018 at 7:33 am

    Hi Mikaela, Very detailed and informative article.

    Rightly said, Cookies are not surely security risk but are more of a privacy risk. Your browser, Search Engines, Cookies continue to track information. This is your new mantra: Flush the cache, delete the cookies, protect your privacy.

    On another note, It is believed that “Internet Cookies” got their name from “Fortune Cookies” 🙂


    1. avatar
      Mikaela Bray November 26, 2018 at 9:12 am

      Hello,

      We are very happy you liked our article and the information provided was useful! It is really important to learn how to spot the difference between cookies and protect yourself from dangerous ones. By the way, nice comparison with “Fortune Cookies”!

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