What are cookies? Definition, Types of cookies, First-party vs Third-party
Upon entering a web page, you often see a box informing you about the usage of “cookies.” But even though you know the name, do you know what cookies really are?
What are cookies?
Cookies are small pieces of data created by a web server and stored within a web browser. They store and save browsing information which can later be retrieved. Once the user comes back to the website, cookies inform the web server that you have returned.
Also referred to as browser cookies or internet cookies, HTTP cookies are cookies designed specifically for online activities. These small text packets storing your browsing history are downloaded into your web browser when you visit a specific website.
HTTP cookies save what happens during the user’s session. They have the ability to track the user’s browsing activity and also remember user preferences. All this reduces the amount of data going to and from the web server, thus improving the performance of the web application.
With a nearly endless amount of computer and online activities, it should come as no surprise that there are several types of web cookies. The most common ones include the following:
As the name suggests, these cookies track the activities of a user every time they return to the same website. Over time, they accumulate enough of the user’s browsing history to create an individual profile. Based on that profile, they are able to provide suggestions of items or services that may be particularly interesting to that specific user.
Session cookies are used only during the user’s session. As they have no expiration date, once the session ends, the web browser automatically deletes these cookies.
Unlike session cookies, persistent cookies typically either have an expiration date, or remain on the computer indefinitely. Persistent cookies are used to track whether a user is logged in and under what name and to track user activity on a specific site over a period of time.
Authentication cookies are generated when a user logs into an account through a web browser. They track the log and login credentials, ensuring the correct user receives the correct sensitive information.
Cookies are used to improve the user experience on the website. They allow you to remain logged into your account or to return to a website and still have your shopping cart filled with things you want to order. In simple words, they’re there for your convenience.
But how do cookies work exactly?
- Personalization: internet cookies are able to customize your online shopping experience by feeding the website with information about your previously browsed items. In effect, you will be shown similar things that cookies believe might be of interest to you.
- User sessions: cookies help the website recognize specific users, matching them with their personal login information and content that might be relevant to the user.
- Tracking: cookies can track website and internet activities of the user, again allowing the website to personalize your experience.
First-party cookies are created directly by the website that the user visits. Only the website that created them has access, making them considered safer and less intrusive.
Third-party cookies are created by a different domain than that displayed in your web browser. Typically they come from linked ads or web banners visible on the website you are visiting. That is also why they are more problematic, as they provide these third parties, such as advertisers or analytics companies, with access to your browsing history, without you even needing to click on any links.
While some don’t mind cookies tracking their browsing habits, others are, and rightfully so, concerned with user privacy. Fortunately, there are ways you can control how web servers generate cookies and how web pages store information:
- Clear cookies: most browsers will allow you to clear cookies either manually or automatically, upon exit. This will remove all of the data stored from your previous visits, such as login credentials or site preferences. If your web browser doesn’t clear cookies automatically, remember to do this manually at least once a month.
- Block cookies: many web browsers allow you to block cookies altogether or specific types, such as third-party cookies.
- Customize cookie settings: as you’ve probably noticed, many websites allow you to manage their cookie settings, typically through pop-up notifications at the bottom of the website’s homepage.
Generally speaking, it’s up to you whether you decide to accept cookies. Nevertheless, it is recommended that you accept first-party cookies, as this will ensure the website you enter loads and functions correctly. However, you can feel free to not accept third-party cookies, as this should not affect your browsing experience.
No, cookies alone aren’t able to steal passwords. However, if a website isn’t properly secured, a hacker can potentially obtain the user’s login credentials.
If you decide not to accept cookies, the website you enter should work. However, some of its features might not be available.
In Google Chrome, click “more settings” at the top right. Under “privacy and security,” click “cookies and other site data.” Select the desired options, in this case, “block-third party cookies” and “block third-party cookies in incognito.”