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October 22, 2019

Privacy Tip of the Week: Disable Tracking Cookies

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The internet is full of cookies. Not warm, fresh-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip goodies like you can whip up in your kitchen or buy from your local bakery. Instead, this type of cookie is a small text file a website can store on your devices. The purpose of these files is to allow websites to remember your browsing preferences every time you return to them. For example, if you give permission for a site to remember your username and password to avoid having to log in every time, that information is saved as a cookie. While many of these files simply make browsing easier, there is another type of cookie that can actually track your browsing behaviour and use or sell that data, which can harm your online privacy. Here’s what you need to know about tracking cookies and how to disable them:

  • What are they?
  • How do they work?
  • How do they harm my privacy?
  • Can I disable them?

What Are They?

The difference between a regular cookie and one that tracks users is exactly what it seems. The information a regular cookie collects about you is minimal and stays within the website offering that cookie. It remembers your site preferences, such as login and language settings. However, tracking cookies can follow you across websites, collecting data about your browsing habits to study or sell to third-parties. Some of these cookies can even collect more personal data from your IP, like your name or address. They also allow for “retargeting” which means that an advertiser can see your search for a product or service on one website, and then show you an ad for that same product or service on an entirely separate site.

How Do Tracking Cookies Work?

While regular cookies stay contained within the domain of a single website, a tracking cookie is actually distributed and received across multiple domains. This type of cookie also doesn’t keep information about you contained to your device to be read only by the site you’re actively visiting. Instead, your browsing information is logged and sent to a remote database for analysis. The data collected about you is then studied for marketing efforts and can be used to target you with improved ads down the road.

How Do They Harm My Privacy?

Tracking cookies are threats to privacy for two reasons. The first is that they collect personal user information, often without consent. This information can include your name, your address, your date of birth, and detailed logs of your online activity. The second reason they threaten online privacy is because they use this information irresponsibly. If collecting the information wasn’t bad enough, many of the hosts who create these cookies sell the data they collect to third-parties. That means they widely share your information, most often without your consent. It is then studied and profiles are built about you, your interests, and your internet habits, to be used for future purposes such as advertising.

How Do I Disable Them?

Because many websites don’t maintain full transparency in the use of tracking cookies, it’s all too easy for these cookies to be saved to your device without your knowledge. Thankfully, there are a few ways to minimize your exposure or prevent them from tracking you altogether:

  • Clear Your Browser Regularly: Most browsers offer users the option to clear their cookies. By doing this regularly, you can delete old cookies that have been tracking you for a long time.
  • Decide on Cookie Access: Some browsers also allow users to set the level of access a cookie can have to devices. You may be able to disallow third-party cookies (ie tracking cookies) which drastically reduces your risk.
  • Read Privacy Policies: One of the best ways to protect yourself from this type of cookie is to be aware of when and where you may be exposed to them. Many website privacy policies disclose the use of cookies. This knowledge helps you to proactively block them.
  • Use Ad Block: Online advertisements are notorious for being the source of cookies. By using an ad blocker, you prevent the cookies from reaching you entirely.
  • Use a VPN: Most VPNs hide or change your IP address, which limits the information a cookie can collect about you. In addition, many VPNs also delete cookies at the end of a session. Take a look at the many features offered by HotBot VPN.
  • Enable Browser Extensions: Some browser extensions specifically reduce the risk users take with tracking cookies.

While cookies that track internet users aren’t inherently malicious, they are harmful to privacy. Users should disable them when possible.

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