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Understanding Internet Privacy: What Are Cookies?

As an internet user, you've likely heard some of the recent discourse over web privacy, tracking, and changes regarding those topics. Last year, Safari took the first step in blocking third-party cookies, and now other internet browsers are following suit. The death of the third-party cookie is a pivotal moment in the history of internet usage and in the history of internet privacy, but their nebulous description and wide variety of usages has left some in the dark about what cookies actually are.

So, what are cookies, and what are they for?

Understanding Cookies

At its most basic level, a cookie is a snippet of code that your computer downloads when you visit a website, along with the rest of the data that makes up the webpage you're attempting to access. In many cases, cookies are hugely beneficial to your browsing. For instance, cookies are what allow you to stay logged in to a website while you go from page to page, or what allow you to store items in a virtual shopping cart while making purchases online. These cookies are downloaded to your computer not only for preserving individual sessions, but for ensuring that the information you want to keep handy is still available if you leave the page and come back later.

Blocking Cookies

Some cookies are used to inform companies how you interact with their website; these are referred to as "tracking cookies." Tracking cookies give your browser a unique fingerprint that allows installed analytics services to track things like which buttons you click, how far you scroll, and how long you spend on any individual page. Marketers and web designers use this usage data to make improvements to their websites and sales processes to make things as easy and attractive as possible.

The cookies that are in the process of being blocked by major web browsers, such as Google Chrome, Safari, and Firefox, are referred to as third-party tracking cookies. These cookies are loaded in by objects outside of the control of the site you're visiting, such as banner ads pulled in from an outside ad-serving service. In many cases, these cookies are used to create a more complete picture of your browsing history by fingerprinting you across a wide variety of sites. This data is used to serve ads more relevant to your personal browsing history and has been a source of concern for internet privacy advocacy groups.

Privacy Concerns 

Because third-party cookies are able to collect a huge amount of data about an individual user, both across the internet and also across devices, it's no wonder that internet privacy advocates have largely supported the death of the third-party cookie. That said, simply removing third-party cookies will not keep companies from collecting data from users. Next week, we'll cover some of the different ways companies are working to replace the third-party cookie, and the different benefits and drawbacks to each solution.

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