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First-party cookies vs third-party cookies: What is the difference?

First-party cookies and third-party cookies are similar but they serve different purposes. In this article we will explain the differences between first- and third-party cookies, and show you how to avoid the cookies you don’t want.

First-party cookies vs third-party cookies: What is the difference?

What are first-party cookies?

A first-party cookie is a useful piece of code that a website embeds in your browser to allow for a better user experience. These cookies exist to maintain consistent performance across the pages of a website.

Have you ever visited a website and felt that it recognized you? Perhaps logging in was easier than before, or maybe some items you put in your cart last time were still there. In these cases, the website has spotted the cookies it stored on your browser during your last visit, and is able to pick up where you left off.

The primary feature of a first-party cookie is that it is created and used on one website. When you leave the site, the cookie won’t follow you elsewhere.

How are first-party cookies created?

First-party cookies are created by the websites you visit, assuming you give the site permission to do so.

When a user visits a site for the first time, a panel usually appears asking them to confirm their preferences for cookies, data collection, and other privacy-related parameters. If the user agrees to the use of cookies, the site can then start embedding these small snippets of code into the user’s browser.

Examples of first-party cookies

First-party cookies can be any information about you and your activity that a website logs on your browser. First-party cookies allow for the following functions:

  • A faster login process.
  • Personalized content recommendations (product suggestions based on previous searches, for example).
  • Items remaining in an online store cart.

Of course, first-party cookies won’t always enhance the user experience. For example, imagine a website (an online news source, perhaps) that only allows you to access a limited amount of content before throwing up a paywall. A site like this could use first-party cookies to identify you as someone who has already used up the free content allowance, even if you have a different IP address each time you visit.

What are third-party cookies?

Third-party cookies are embedded in your browser, just like first-party cookies, but they are designed to track you across multiple websites. According to NordVPN’s research on cookies, around 40% of all the cookies your browser receives are third-party.

Instead of just focusing on the functionality of a single site, third-party cookies can cling to your browser as you move from one part of the internet to the next, monitoring your activity. Third-party cookies can be used to generate third-party data: user information that is then sold to other companies to improve their advertising strategies.

It should be noted that third-party cookies aren’t exclusively bad. Many websites use third-party services on their webpages, and these will generate cookies that are not necessarily malicious or invasive. For the most part, the rest of this article will focus on the more malign third-party cookies that are intended to monitor activity and target ads.

How are third-party cookies created?

Third-party cookies are usually created by websites and web servers that want to collect data about your browsing habits. Internet advertising is a huge industry, so ad providers are always looking for ways to target customers effectively.

Many advertisers will load third-party cookies onto your browser if one of their ads appears on a page you visit, allowing them to track what you do after you leave that page. You might not connect to that third-party server again but its trackers could follow you for weeks, months, or longer.

Typically, third-party cookies are almost always for the benefit of advertisers and companies, not the users.

Examples of third-party cookies

Third-party cookies come in many forms, from advertisers’ invasive tracking cookies to those planted by hackers and cybercriminals. Here are just a few examples of the functions these cookies serve:

  • Cross-site tracking, allowing advertisers to develop a more detailed profile on you as a consumer.
  • Presenting you with recurring ads: most ad campaigns rely on showing a user multiple ads over a period of time (something that is easier to do if the advertiser can track user behavior).
  • Collecting browsing data information to facilitate cyberattacks, including social engineering attacks.

First-party cookies vs third-party cookies: Main differences

The main difference between a first-party and third-party cookie is where they operate. The former only functions while you’re on a specific website, while the latter sticks with you as long as you’re using the same browser.

A first-party cookie functions on one website, but does not track or influence your experience after you leave that site. They’re intended to keep the website running smoothly and, in most cases, to give you a better experience.

Third-party cookies, on the other hand, follow you across the internet like little spies hiding inside your browser. In most cases, a third-party server’s code is meant to benefit that third-party, not its users.

In the future, though, third-party cookies may become a thing of the past.

The future of first-party and third-party cookies

First-party cookies will probably remain a core part of website infrastructure for a long time to come. They work well, improve performance, and pose limited threats to user safety and privacy.

The same cannot be said for third-party cookies. Google (the owners of the enormously popular Chrome browser) have announced that they will phase out third-party cookie support throughout 2022 and 2023. This will probably be the end of the third-party cookie as we know it. Other browser providers are likely to follow suit and block third-party cookies too.

Until third-party cookies are no longer in use, it’s important to clear cookies regularly on your browser, and wherever possible to take steps to stop third-party cookies tracking you.

How to protect yourself from cookies

You can take steps today to stop third-party cookies collecting data on your browsing habits.

  • Disable cookies on your browser.
  • Regularly remove cookies from your browser.
  • When an option appears on a website asking you to “Accept all” or “Reject” cookies, either choose “Reject” or look for a third option (usually called “Cookie settings” or “Custom settings”) where you can specify exactly what kind of cookies you want.

Even if you do all of the above, you might still be at risk from super cookies, powerful trackers planted by your internet service provider (ISP). The simplest way to block these cookies is by using a VPN.

Protect yourself from tracking with a VPN

A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts your data and prevents your ISP from monitoring and selling it. A VPN can also shield your IP address, a numerical signifier often used to identity and track users online.

With NordVPN, you can benefit from Threat Protection Pro, a feature that stops invasive trackers from being embedded on your browser or device. Threat protection blocks ads, limits malware threats, and boosts overall privacy.

One NordVPN account protects up to six devices, so you can supercharge your privacy across laptops, phones, smart TVs, and more.

Online security starts with a click.

Stay safe with the world’s leading VPN