If you’re online today, you’ve probably seen the pop-up asking for your acceptance of the website company’s cookies. But what are cookies, and how do they affect your online experience? Are they dangerous? Should you accept them all?
Websites, Cookies & Your Private Information
What are Cookies?
Cookies are small text files sent by the website you’re using to your browser. If you accept them, they are stored in your browser, where they can track, collect and send back data to the website’s owner. In theory, this may seem innocuous, as most people assume the websites they visit aren’t doing anything nefarious with the data being collected, but the truth is typically less black and white since not all cookies are the same.
First-Party Cookies: These cookies are placed on websites by the company you are visiting to identify a user, remember preferences (like that ‘keep me logged in’ box) or store your shopping cart.
Third-Party Cookies: These cookies are placed on websites by a company different than who you are visiting to track users between websites, display ads for things you might want (like when you go to Amazon to search for something, and then see it displayed on ads everywhere else you go), or the support chat function.
Why are there so many cookie pop-ups?
In May 2018, a data privacy law, known as the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), became enforceable, requiring websites for multinational companies to request acceptance of their cookies for the purposes of online data tracking and transparency. And while this only legally applies to information from people who live in the European Union, it is not predicated on the origin of the company’s home base.
Why is this important?
The GDPR is meant to protect you and your personal and private information. According to Article 8, users have “a right to respect for one’s private and family life, one’s home, and one’s correspondence”. This also requires the same companies to let you know if your stored data with them has been compromised or breached.
Are cookies dangerous?
First-party cookies are typically safe, as they only store information on your browser about your activity on that website. It’s how you get those discount emails when you leave something in a cart, or don’t have to log in again and again when you’re on the same computer or mobile device, or other customer-generated preferences.
Third-party cookies, while useful to consumers by creating ads for things they want or interests they may have, there are a host of privacy concerns surrounding the ability of other companies to track users throughout their internet history.
But not all consumers are aware of how far that reach goes, or how long it lasts.
A browser window with multiple open tabs can relay private information to other websites and parties that might not have otherwise received, and closing your whole session (one browser, all open tabs) does not clear them for you automatically.
And these are the ‘good’ third-party companies.
So how can consumers protect themselves?
With all this information accessible by tech-savvy companies and thieves, how can the average consumer protect themselves without tossing their computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones in the trash?
Know When to Accept Cookies
- Access: Some websites require cookie acceptance for access. If you are familiar with the website, then accept.
- Usability: Cookies are great for remembering consumer-specific info, like abandoned carts or things you’ve already bought.
- Log-ins: Remember the ‘keep me logged in’ box? That’s a first-party cookie!
Know When to Say No
- Unencrypted websites: Check your address bar. Is that little lock open or closed? An open lock means you’re on an unencrypted site, and your information will not be safe there.
- Third-party cookies: It’s a safe move to not accept third-party cookies, as you can’t be 100% sure what they’re doing with your data, but remember, this is going to change the kinds of ads you see as you wander through the internet.
- Slow browser: Cookies take up space on your computer. If you don’t need them, don’t keep them. Or set up your system to clear them when you’re done browsing.
- Bad cookies: Did your antivirus software throw up a warning? Heed it! Don’t accept if you haven’t yet, and delete them if you have!
- Private info Consideration: If you’re going to be entering your SSN, banking info, or any other personally identifiable information (PII), don’t accept cookies to add another layer of protection for that information.
Let Your Browsers Work For You
You can set up your browser to automatically dump cookies at the end of every online session.
- Chrome: Clear cookies & cache | Change cookie settings
- Firefox: Clear cookies & cache | Change cookie settings
- Microsoft Edge: Clear cookies & cache | Change cookie settings
Remember that you do not have to accept cookies when that pop-up comes on your screen. If you trust the company, then accept, if you want to. Most companies now have options for levels of acceptance, which gives you better choices for what they track.
In the age of automatic bill pay, it’s easy to grow complacent about your finances, which makes it easy to miss the tiny transactions scammers are pushing to take your hard-earned money.
- Check your bank and credit card accounts regularly
- Sign up for text and/or email service to be notified when a charge is made in another city, state, or country.
- Routinely check for recurring charges
AnnualCreditReport.com will get you a free copy of your credit report annually.
Most banks have a built-in credit monitoring service, so contact your bank today.
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