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What are internet cookies?

Cookies can speed up web browser performance and improve your internet experience. While some are harmless, others can cause problems and infringe on privacy. So what are cookies on the internet and what do they do? In this article, we explain cookies and show you how to manage them.

What are internet cookies?

How internet cookies work

Internet cookies, or HTTP cookies, are tiny pieces of data that your browser stores when you visit a website. Browser cookies come from the web servers you connect to and allow websites to remember your information as you move from page to page.

For example, if you put an item in your basket on an e-commerce site, that item will stay in the basket as you move from page to page. This is possible because the site is able to recognise the cookies stored on your browser and can tell that you are the same person who put those items in your basket.

Cookies can sometimes follow you from site to site, allowing your activity to be tracked even after you leave the website that gave you the cookie in the first place. For obvious reasons, this kind of cookie might not be good for personal privacy.

Are cookies bad, then? It depends on the type of cookie and the purpose they’re designed for.

Cookie types

Many different types of internet cookies are used online and perform different functions.

First-party cookies

First-party cookies allow websites to recognize returning visitors and remember basic information about users as they move around the site. A web server places them on your browser when you connect to it, but the cookies are only active when you are on one specific website. Once you leave the site that generated the cookies, they lie dormant.

Third-party cookies

Third-party cookies are meant to stay active even after you leave whatever web page planted them. These are the cookies internet users are probably less comfortable with because they allow for cross-site tracking and invade privacy. Consequently, many browsers are now removing third-party cookie functionality.

Flash cookies

Flash cookies are used to improve interactions between websites and browsers when video is being played. If you’re returning to a webpage after watching half of a video hosted there via a Flash player, the Flash cookies planted on your browser can inform the website where you stopped so you don’t have to find your place again. Flash cookies can contain other pieces of information as well, like how many ads you’ve already been shown with the video, and your preferences regarding playback quality or languages.

Zombie cookies

Zombie cookies are cookies designed to resurrect themselves after you delete them. They work by creating backup versions of themselves, saved in different areas of your browser and your device. When you clear your cookies, the copies can leap into action. These particularly insidious cookies are often difficult to remove completely.

Session cookies vs. persistent cookies

Cookies are often broken down into two broad categories: session cookies and persistent cookies. But what are the differences between these two types?

Session cookies

A session cookie is a cookie that is only active while a user is engaging with the specific website that generated the cookies. When the session (the period of time that they are connected to the website server) ends, the session cookies expire.

Persistent cookies

Persistent cookies are saved onto the user’s browser and remain active after the session ends. Any cookie that continues to gather data and perform tracking functions once the user has ended their session is a persistent cookie. Third-party cookies usually fall into this category — these persistent cookies remain long after a session ends.

The role of cookies in enhancing user experience

Cookies can improve user experience and serve useful functions. For example, web pages are easier to navigate when you have cookies stored because user preferences and settings can be remembered as you move from page to page.

From keeping items in your online shopping cart to remembering how much of an online video you watched, cookies provide small quality-of-life improvements. These are not essential, but without them your internet experience would be slower and more cumbersome.

What are cookie policies? Should I accept cookies?

A cookie policy is a document that describes in detail how cookies or similar tools are used on a website. You can usually find it within the terms of service of a site. You will also encounter a pop-up when you first load a webpage, prompting you to consent for cookies to be used during your session. But should you give your consent at all?

If you refuse to accept a cookie policy, you may not be able to access the website or some functionalities may be removed. This isn’t just to punish you for not accepting cookies — some systems simply won’t work properly if you can’t be tracked from one page to the next within a website.

Before agreeing to a cookie policy, read over what kind of cookies the site wants to use and why. If you have an option to choose specific cookie preferences, use it to customize the policy to your needs (for example, choosing only essential cookies).

Companies are required by GDPR laws to ask for your consent before, but consenting to or rejecting these policies is just one way to manage cookies.

Managing cookies: Best practices

Follow these steps to manage cookies on your browser.

  • Clear cookies periodically. While some cookies expire automatically, others do not. Regularly clear your cookies to avoid trackers following you across the internet. Remember that just clearing your cache won’t remove cookies, as they are stored separately from cache data.
  • Only agree to cookies when necessary. Remember that consenting to cookie policies isn’t always necessary to access websites, so you don’t have to do it. When you need to agree to a policy, check to see if you can choose to limit the type and number of cookies used.
  • Block third-party cookies. Check your browser settings — most secure browsers and many mainstream browsers include an option to disable cookies that might be invasive, like third-party cookies.
  • Use browser extensions and tools for cookie management. You can use a variety of tools and browser extensions to block and restrict cookies. For example, using NordVPN’s Threat Protection feature can block cross-site trackers, enhancing your privacy.
  • Browse in incognito mode. You can still save cookies to your browser while in this mode, but the cookies are deleted once you leave an incognito session.

Does NordVPN block cookies?

NordVPN can potentially prevent super cookies, a type of particularly invasive cookie planted by your internet service provider. By doing so, NordVPN protects your privacy and prevents third parties from using these super cookies to track you online.

As we’ve already covered, NordVPN’s Threat Protection can restrict online trackers, but this feature can also block annoying and potentially dangerous adverts, and protects you from sites known to spread malware. Of course, a VPN cannot give you anonymous browsing — online anonymity is impossible — but it can still protect your data.

NordVPN encrypts your online traffic and shields your IP address, giving you a strong baseline for security and privacy. If you want to protect your data and avoid online tracking, start with NordVPN.

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