When you go to a website, there is lots of stuff happening in the background that you can’t see. One of the main things going on are cookie activities. A cooking is a small file that a website can save in a special place on your computer. A cookie can have all different kind of information saved in it. Each time you access a website, it uploads that website’s cookie information to the website, and then the website updates it and saves it back to your computer.
Cookies were created to do useful things. When you log in to a website, you can tell it to save your user ID so you don’t have to type it in every time. Its cookies that give you that feature. Some websites save your shopping basket to a cookie. A cookie can save your preferences for a particular website too. There are other good uses for cookies, but I won’t list them all.
Before I go any further, I want to make sure you understand that cookies cannot harm your computer and they cannot steal your personal information. However, at some point, advertising services figured out they could track what you do on the internet so they could then display advertisements that you would likely be more interested in. These are called tracking cookies. The advertisers usually don’t know who you are. You’re just a number.
You might think that when you go to a website, it might save one cookie to your computer. But that’s not the case. The website you are accessing can save multiple cookies to your computer. In addition to that, advertising services who advertise on websites also save cookies to your computer.
I know this is confusing. Let me give you an example that might help make all of this make sense.
Let’s say you go to UsefulWebsite.com. UsefulWebsite.com saves a cookie to your computer. That website also subscribes to an advertising service I’ll call AdServ. When you go to UsefulWebsite.com, it has slots for advertisements. Those advertisements actually come from AdServ’s website, not from UsefulWebsite.com. And because your computer is accessing AdServ’s website via the advertisement, it can save cookies on your computer as well. This is called a Third Party Cookie.
If hundreds of websites subscribe to AdServ’s service, then every time you go to a website that shows advertisements from AdServ, it uses that same tracking cookie and it can use that information to track what you do on those websites. They’ll know what products you clicked on and they use that information to show advertisements for things you have clicked on. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. It doesn’t really hurt anything. They don’t know who you. Unless…
Here’s where it gets a little scary. Let’s say you are using Internet Explorer to access websites. As you know, Internet Explorer is a Microsoft product. When you use Internet Explorer, Microsoft is saving cookies too and tracking you. Same goes for Google Chrome. And actually, Google is the one company using this type of technology more than anyone. You can login to Google Chrome with your Google ID. If you do, Google knows who you are. Even if you don’t login to Google Chrome, if you use Google Chrome to access Gmail, Google knows who you are. They can track your activities using tracking cookies like any ad service, but Google knows who you are.
Let’s also say you have an Android phone. To make that work, you have to use a Google ID. Now think of all of the information Google can collect about you. And Google knows who you are. And before you say it, Apple does the same thing. Just not as well as Google.
What can you do about all of this?
Whatever browser you use, you can change the settings so that 3rd party cookies are blocked. That will help a little bit.
Most browsers have an option to request that a website not track what you do. This is called a “Do Not Track” request. But it’s just that. A request. They don’t have to honor it. And many don’t.
You can install an Ad-Blocker (uBlock Origin, AdBlock Plus) in your browser (Chrome, Firefox, or Edge. Not Internet Explorer) to block advertisements and their cookies.
These types of things help many of the situations, but not all. If you are really concerned about privacy, here are some things you can do in addition to the things I already mentioned above.
- Use an anonymous browser like Epic, Comodo Dragon, or Maxthon.
- Use a search engine that doesn’t track you like DuckDuckGo or startpage.com.
There are a lot of plug-ins (add-ons) for Chrome and Firefox that claim to help with privacy. I’ve already mentioned that you can install an ad-blocker add-on to Chrome or Firefox. The problem with most of these add-ons is that they can often interfere with the normal operation of a website. In other words, they can make it where you can’t use some websites. An ad-block add-on can do this as well but if a website isn’t working, you can disable the ad-blocker for that site and fix it.
In case you are wondering, VPN doesn’t change anything with tracking cookies.
As for your phone, not much you can do other than go back to a flip phone.