It’s open to debate which type of cookie is more prevalent today: the bite-sized snack or the byte-sized data pack. Both can make your life simpler and more pleasurable, but both may also come with side effects. Here’s a recipe to keep the cookies in your life from getting the upper hand.
Cookies that are your friends
Cookies are small packets of information that the sites you visit place on your computer, in many cases to improve your browsing experience. They help Amazon remember what you put in your shopping cart and proffer up your credit card number when you check out, for example. These are called “first-party” cookies, because they work directly for the sites you visit.
Cookies that are friends of friends
Sometimes sites place cookies on your computer on behalf of their friends. These are called “third-party” cookies and, just like with friends of friends, you can’t always vouch for them. More often than not, their job is to allow advertisers to follow you around the web, observing the content you consume and hawking goods and services related to it. In theory, it’s harmless hucksterism. In practice, it can have serious repercussions…
When cookies misbehave
One woman shopping for her wedding apparel online was mercilessly hounded by ads that actually showed the dress. Since she had hoped to keep it secret from the groom, she spent months clapping her laptop shut every time he entered the room.
If you’re buying supplies and materials for your business online, a website can see where and what you’ve been searching for, changing prices and availability.
If you are pregnant and would like to keep it under wraps for the time being, consider limiting your searches for maternity wear to brick-and-mortar stores. If you’re looking for a new job, think twice before opening e-mails from a career portal on hardware belonging to your current employer. And if you’re booking a flight, evidence is mounting that cookies can smell the air of desperation repeat searches give off – and adjust prices accordingly.
When a single visit to an online retailer can result in dozens of third-party tracking cookies being placed on your hard drive, it’s time to consider fighting back. What are your options?
Emptying the cookie jar
All web browsers provide tools for managing cookies. You can find them under Settings in Chrome and Opera, Options in Firefox, Internet options in IE, or Preferences in Safari. They let you decide which cookies to accept and how long they can stay. Whether you choose to remove them all in one fell swoop or selectively disallow some, it’s worth poking around to see just how many cookies your machine plays host to and who is putting them there.
Keeping cookies on a short leash
Another option is to take advantage of the stealth functionality offered by today’s browsers. In Chrome’s Incognito Mode or IE’s InPrivate Browsing, cookies are retained for the duration of a session but erased as soon as you close all windows. Surfing clandestinely also clears the browser and search history from your computer when you’re done, though you still leave tracks on the websites you visit and the servers you’re routed through on the way.
Learning to live with cookies
If we all opted out of cookies, advertisers would take their grubby dollars elsewhere. Then we’d be asked to pay for content (fat chance, right?) and the Internet as we know it would devolve into a smoldering heap of ARPANET threads with blinking green command prompts on a Pong-like interface navigable only with a joystick. Maybe.
Whatever the future of the Internet, cookies are likely to be part of it, for better and for worse. So you can lump it or leave it.