What exactly IS a cookie - and why should you care?

Google just announced it will eliminate “third party cookies” from its Chrome browser by 2022, claiming it will better protect users' privacy. But ... how?  

You’ve seen the message many times on many websites:


If you’re like most users, you’ve “agreed” without exactly understanding what you’ve agreed to. After all, a “cookie” sounds pretty innocent. And, if you have a look at the current version of Google Account help, you’ll find this reassuring definition:

Cookies are files created by sites you visit. They make your online experience easier by saving browsing data.

That’s not a lie. But it’s also not the whole truth.

Cookies defined

Cookies are tiny text files created by sites you visit. But while they can make your online experience “easier” - they can also make it extremely profitable for advertisers. 

Why? Because these text files get deposited on your browser, where they live forever (unless you manually delete them - see below), functioning as a breadcrumb-trail of your online movements. Think: “That’s how the cookie crumbles.”

shutterstock_1512824546Consider online shopping. Cookies are how an online store “remembers” what’s in your cart, or what items you viewed most recently, for example. Cookies might also be used by a website to record your log-in info, so you don’t have to.

In these ways, they really do “make your online experience easier.”

What's so bad about that?

But “third party cookies” are text files that get deposited on your browser from sites that you have never visited - allowing random advertisers to track your interests, online habits and even your location. This enables businesses to target ads with laser-like precision - and then to measure their effectiveness.

Have you ever wondered how the internet seems to read your mind - delivering pop-up ads for exactly that appliance, or vacation, or other purchase you’ve been considering? Well, third-party cookies are a big part of the answer. 

Third party cookies enable businesses to target ads to you or children with laser-like precision - and then to measure their effectiveness.

A threat to your digital security

Third-party cookies, in other words, are the foundation of digital advertising. They also represent a significant privacy infringement - and one that happens stealthily, in the background, and out of the awareness of most users.

For this reason, third-party cookies are widely viewed as a threat to digital security.

When Chrome phases out third-party cookies, it will mean protecting users “from ad companies they’ve never heard of, didn’t know were tracking them, and don’t know if they can trust,” reports Vox.com.

shutterstock_187212731-1How the cookie is crumbling

Google has come under increasing pressure to up its privacy protections, and its biggest competitors - Firefox and Safari - already block third-party cookies by default.  

Cyber safety experts have applauded the move away from third-party cookies, but they also note that it gives even more power to what vox.com calls “first-party data vacuums” - namely Facebook and, yes, Google itself.

The cookie ban hinders advertisers from tracking consumers online. But it does nothing to limit Facebook and Google’s ability to do so, gathering enormous amounts of data about us in the process.

Protecting your privacy

You can clear all or selected cookies on Chrome right now, and choose to block new ones, by adjusting your browser settings, but the process is somewhat complex. (See instructions here.) If you’re concerned about tracking for yourself or your family, it may be simpler to switch to Firefox or Safari.

With the help of Family Zone's cyber experts, you'll always stay up to date on the latest trends in tech in today's fast-moving digital world.

Start your free trial right now, and create a home where digital children thrive.

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Topics: Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, privacy, Google, cookies, third-party cookies, Chrome, security

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