What Are Tracking Cookies and How to Block Them in Your Web Browser

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We often hear about cookies and how they’re tracking our online activity. We see tens of pop-ups daily on every site asking for our consent. Also, we get way too many ads promoting products we recently viewed. Well, blame it on these mysterious cookies. But what are tracking cookies, really?

In this post, you’ll learn how tracking cookies record what we do online and why.

Keep reading to find out what kind of information cookies track about us, how they work, and how you can disable them if you feel that they are invading your personal space.

Let’s dive in! 👇

📚 Table of contents:

🍪 What are cookies?

Cookies are text files that contain data about every user who visits a website. Things like username, password, links you clicked on, your shopping cart, geographical location, and various preferences that you set when you browse a website.

Basically, a cookie identifies your computer through a unique ID. When you enter a site, it sees your computer as a unique entity with a specific browsing history and set of actions.

The moment you come back to that site, it recognizes you through the cookies and customizes your browsing experience based on your previous settings. For instance, it remembers your login details so you don’t have to insert them again every time you return.

Who creates the cookie file? When you access a website, your internet browser sends your data to the server in the form of a cookie. The cookie stores all the information about your user and online activity.

💡 The initial scope of what cookies did and their purpose was to reduce the load on web servers by storing the users’ data remotely (on their own computers). But, with time, this escalated into using cookies to gather people’s personal information for marketing and sales.

Types of cookies

Based on their end purpose, cookies can be split into:

👉 First-party cookies – they contain your preferences and accounts that a site will fill when you visit it repeatedly. If you are a regular visitor to a website, first-party cookies are useful because they help the website remember your settings. Hence, you won’t have to go through the “onboarding” process every time you come back.

They are also called session cookies or temporary cookies because they activate when a user starts a browsing session on a site and expire the moment the user exits the site.

For example, you enter a site and it remembers your language, location, login details, and whatever filters you set there.

These cookies are necessary and useful for a smoother and quicker browsing experience.

👉 Third-party cookies – are placed on a website by other websites to track a user’s activity. If a site you visit is allowing ads, the companies that create those ads can collect information about you even if you don’t click on the ads. Third-party cookies track your activity across websites and collect your browsing history.

These cookies are also called persistent because they stay in the browser for longer periods of time.

What are tracking cookies?

This brings us to our main question – what are tracking cookies?

Tracking cookies are third-party cookies, most of the time. They are the cookies that companies use to track the user’s behavior online – from what you search on Google to what links you click on, what items you buy, what niches you follow, what device you use, etc.

Tracking cookies are the cookies that serve marketing purposes, such as targeted advertising and website analytics. They are the reason why many people worry about their online privacy.

What do cookies track?

What do cookies collect from you specifically? Here’s a list of the most common things cookies know about you:

💻 The devices you use to access the internet.

🗺️ Your location.

🔑 The login details you set on a website.

👩‍🦰 The preferences you set on a website: language, notifications, layouts, filters, name, age, interests, and other personal data.

🛒 What you buy online and when.

⏲️ The time you spend on a site.

👨‍🍳 Information about your job.

🖱️ Most of your browsing history: sites you visit, clicks, actions you take, items you view, shopping carts, ads you interact with, search queries, etc.

How do tracking cookies work?

So far, you know what tracking cookies are and what data they gather about you. But how exactly do they do that?

The main problem with tracking cookies is that there’s just so many of them all over the web. It’s the sheer volume of cookies everywhere that allows companies to connect the dots and build a whole browsing profile of your web browser.

For example, there’s something called the Facebook pixel. Technically speaking, it’s just a simple request back to Facebook’s servers that stores the current user’s info. One of the reasons Facebook encourages website owners to use the pixel is so that they can get better experience with their Facebook ads.

Let’s say your favorite ecommerce store has the pixel installed. When you visit it, Facebook will call back to their servers and take notice of your visit, plus anything else that you might be doing in that store that’s interesting from Facebook’s point of view.

Then, when you go back to Facebook, they already know that you visited the store plus what you did there. If the store owner so chooses, they can now display tailor-made ads to you on Facebook – ads that are meant to speak to your previous experience with the store.

In that scenario, you’ve just been tracked across two websites – the ecommerce store and Facebook. But, of course, this happens not only between these two websites but countless websites all over the web.

Google does something very similar for its Google Ads and AdSense programs. More or less, it can track your activity through all the websites you visited that did have Google’s tracking installed.

All of this activity is then stored in tracking cookies. Each time you visit another site, the cookie gets updated.

And this goes on and on until most of the companies will be able to put together a chain of your full browsing history – the sites you visited, in what order, and how much time you spent on each one.

Should you disable cookies in your browser?

No matter if you want to disable the cookies or not, either decision comes with a compromise on your end. If you are aware of the pros and cons of disabling cookies in your browser, you will understand what option benefits you more.

So, take a look at the pros and cons of disabling cookies in your browser:

Pros

You have more privacy online.

Site owners won’t know how often you visit their site and won’t be able to include you in a user typology.

You will see fewer targeted ads.

You can still allow cookies manually on sites that you don’t mind sharing your data with. Click on “Manage cookies/preferences” when you see a pop-up asking you for cookie consent.

Cons

Each browsing session will look like you’ve just installed a new browser. You have to re-enter your login details, reset preferences, remember frequent URLs, add products to shopping carts again, and do all the repetitive things manually.

You will still see ads, but they will be less relevant to you.

Companies can still track you through other methods. You need to clear cache and delete your browsing history every day to avoid that.

How to disable cookies

If you think that blocking cookies is the best solution for you, you can do it in one of the following ways (or all at once, if that brings you comfort):

Change browser settings

Go to your browser settings. If you use Chrome, click the three dots in the top right of your window and go to Settings. Scroll down and click on Cookies and other site data.

Select one of the options available. You can either block the third-party cookies (in the main browser or in incognito) or block all the cookies (including the first-party ones).

what are tracking cookies and how to disable them

You can also choose to allow cookies but clear them every time you close the browser, so it won’t remember any cookie in your next browsing session.

Install a browser extension

If you want to add extra precaution or simply prefer a browser extension instead, try Ghostery, Privacy Badger, or DuckDuckGo.

These extensions block tracking cookies and give you options on how to manage your browsing data. You will be the one who keeps everything in control thanks to the customization settings that you will have at hand via these tools.

Apart from blocking cookies and ads, the extensions give privacy scores to the websites you visit, along with information about the companies that track you online.

Read the GDPR pop-ups on websites

If you are giving your consent to every GDPR notification that pops up on a website because you do not have the time to read what it is about, maybe you should check it more carefully next time.

Instead of clicking “Accept all” or “I agree,” check the details and be more selective about what you consent to. This way, you can tick the cookies that you want to eliminate and keep the ones that are not as harmful.

cookie consent popup

Use a more protective browser

If you do not trust your browser’s security, you can move to more secure browsers, like Firefox Focus or Brave, which come with built-in protection tools. This way, you have more control over how third-party websites track you.

What are tracking cookies: conclusion

We hope this post leaves you with a better understanding of what tracking cookies are and how they work in the background while you’re browsing your favorite websites.

Are they good or bad? Tough to say. First-party cookies are good if you ask me. But, when it comes to tracking cookies, it’s up for debate.

If you care about your online privacy, you should probably disable tracking cookies. But keep in mind that companies can still track you through other means.

On the other hand, if you don’t mind companies getting information about you for marketing reasons, then you can keep cookies active.

We would love to hear your take on cookies. Do you allow them in your browser? Let us know via the comments section below.

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