It’s not just Facebook who play fast and loose with your personal information. Everyone’s on the band wagon.

One way websites keep a big-brotherly eye on you is by planting “cookies” via your web browser. And we’re not talking about the ones your grandma bakes.

Photo by Monika Grabkowska on UnsplashWhat’s a cookie, I hear you cry.

It’s a tiny text file which websites place one or more of on your computer. It can be of benefit to you, or it can be harmful.

Benign cookies

These are helpful and save your precious time. They allow a website that you visit regularly to recognise you. The site writes your details onto your device so that it can identify you next time you visit and for that site to be personalised for you. This saves you the bother of typing in your username and password each time you log in on websites where it’s a requirement

For instance, you visit a site which gives you the weather forecast. The site reads the cookie that it’s previously saved on your computer and using those data, it sends you the page with your local area forecast already displayed.

Not so nice cookies

Other cookies can be more sinister. Their aim may be to track your habits and target you with unwanted advertising material. The dreaded spam.

They can be used to collect information about how you use the Internet. That information can then be sold to junkmail spammers without your knowledge or permission. Most of them come from “third party” sites which typically would be advertisers on the sites you visit.

You need to how to control and restrict cookies using easily accessed browser settings:

Why should I do this? I hear you cry!

To recap, for those who only looked at the pictures and missed the first paragraphs. :o)

The sites you visit may place first party cookies on your computer to keep track of your habits and needs. They contain information (e.g. your site logon and personalisation details) which you may have given on a previous visit.

Assuming that you’re not visiting dodgy websites (porn sites and peddlers of pirated videos or music for instance), that’s usually OK and often to your benefit. If a site welcomes you by name, you have their cookie. No problem.

However the third party cookies are those placed by advertisers other than the main site. These we definitely don’t want. They don’t have your best interests at heart. They can lead to lots of spam and worse.

Block ’em!

Should I block cookies altogether? Well, no…

Why not stop them all? Well, a lot of legitimate websites won’t let you in if you block first-party cookies. An example would be a magazine or newspaper site, they’re providing a free service to to you which may cost them a hard copy sale. It’s not surprising that they want to know how often you visit and what interests you, and how they can persuade you to be a more lucrative customer.

Typical sites at which this applies are Amazon, eBay, Dropbox, Evernote, major newspapers, utility companies, telecoms, and any groups to which you may belong.

For obvious reasons it doesn’t happen at your bank’s website.

Taking control

In each browser that you use, find the place in Settings where you can block third-party cookies. Most browsers don’t make it easy.

In Chrome for MacOS you bring up Preferences (keyboard shortcut ⌘,) or click on the 3 vertical dots to the right of the address bar, then click on Settings.

See also:

Image credits:

Monika Grabkowska

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