Are cookies jeopardizing your online privacy?

Are Cookies Jeopardizing Your Online Privacy?

Cookies aren’t just the favorite food of blue monsters on “Sesame Street” — they’re also important tools used in the design of nearly every website you encounter. As you shop online for a new toaster, check your email or comment on a blog post, cookies monitor your movements. They might also be compromising your electronic privacy.

Not all cookies are bad: They can simplify your browsing experience, keep you logged in to a favorite site, store your location for local searches and provide access to “quick checkout” features.

But some cookies also harbor a darker side. As you surf the Web these cookies collect your personal data, such as your home address, phone number and email address. They allow webmasters to view the specific keywords you used to find their sites, to see which of their ads you clicked and to archive your shopping habits.

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This article discusses how cookies work and what types of information they gather, as well as strategies you can use to disable cookies in order to protect your online privacy.


What is a cookie?

A cookie is a small text file that a Web server can store on your computer’s hard drive. Cookies by themselves aren’t a security risk — they can’t run programs, give your computer a virus or spy on your hard drive. Some companies’ cookies can, however, track your activity from one website to the next, recording your behavior as you go and invading your Web privacy. Some of these companies often end up being third-party firms that you haven’t dealt with directly.

There are three common types of cookies: session, persistent and third-party ad-serving.

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A session cookieallows the website you’re visiting to track your data from page to page, such as keeping items in your shopping cart while you continue to browse. Without these cookies you’d have to keep putting the items back into your cart every time you visited a new page. Session cookies are the peasants of the cookie kingdom: They expire when you close out a given website, requiring you to log in again the next time you visit.

Persistent cookiesremain on your computer’s hard drive even after you leave a website, allowing it to remember your information for future visits. For example, if a company’s website is in Spanish, with other language options, a persistent cookie will help the site remember that your preferred language is English. When you go to the site again, the cookie will automatically show you English text, having remembered your preference.

The most dangerous type of cookie is the third-party ad-serving cookie, which follows you as you move from website to website. These cookies allow advertisers to target their sales to you, taking advantage of information like your demographic and browsing history. Not only do you not know what information these companies are collecting, but you also don’t know what they’re using it for. This practice is entirely legal, leaving it up to consumers to take charge of their online privacy and address their cookie settings individually.


How to disable cookies to guard your online privacy

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Concerned about how cookies might be affecting your online privacy? There’s an easy solution: You can turn them off. Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer (version 6 and above) each allow users to selectively allow or disallow cookies.

For Firefox:

  • Go to Tools, then Options and then Privacy.
  • Find the underlined link that mentions cookies. This will display a complete list of cookies on your computer.
  • You can selectively delete the cookies you don’t recognize or delete them all with one fell click.

For Internet Explorer:

  • Go to Tools, then Internet Options and then Privacy.
  • You’ll see a slider with six settings; there you can perform a range of actions, including blocking all cookies, blocking only third-party cookies or blocking cookies that don’t have a compact privacy policy.
  • You can also modify your privacy settings to override the general settings for specific websites.
    • To do this click Edit on the Privacy tab.
    • This opens the Per Site Privacy Actions box, which will allow you to block or allow individual domains.
  • Microsoft’s website has more information on what the various privacy settings mean, as well as information on how to change them in earlier versions of Internet Explorer.

Other popular Web browsers, such as Google Chrome and Apple Safari, also let you personalize your cookie settings. Go to those browsers’ privacy sections to manage your preferences.

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One more thing …

One final type of cookie is the kind stored by the popular Flash plugin. Many people don’t even realize that these Flash cookies are living on their systems, which is why it’s important to educate yourself on their use and potential security risks.

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