You’ve probably heard the term “cookie” thrown around while browsing the Internet. Recently, there’s been a big change to these “cookies.” And that change is vital to your net-safety.
When you go to a website, a new European Law called GDPR now requires companies to inform you that it uses these "cookies"to track some of the things you do on their site (and afterward).
So we’re going to briefly discuss in this blog, what a cookie is when they can infringe on your privacy and then we’ll show you how to avoid the dangerous ones.
Let’s start with the basics - What are Cookies?
But, you can think of cookies as a collection of membership cards.
When you navigate to a site, it provides you a cookie that says “I’ve been here and am interested in these things.” The sites then request them back from your browser to verify who you are, what you’re on the site for and then they custom-tailor their information for you based on the cookies you have.
When you log in to your bank’s website, the site will “start a session” for you and that session is tracked with a cookie. This cookie cannot be accessed by other websites, but when you log into your bank again, there's no need to provide a password because the cookie already "verified" you. This cookie is helpful.
But when you browse a shopping website and click on an item, many shopping websites will track that item in a “recently viewed” area of the shopping site by giving you a cookie that tracks what items you’ve viewed. This one could be used to out you.
After leaving that shopping site, you may also notice that same item shows up in an advertisement on another website because it requested your “Amazon Products” cookie. That’s where things start to feel a little unsettling for most people.
Is there an easy way to 'see' the cookie?
But there are two ways if you're willing to do it. (If not, skip to what you can do to prevent cookies).
1. "View Page Info"
In Firefox, you can see if a website is using cookies by right-clicking any inactive part of a web page (for example, away from all the links and pictures) and select “View Page Info.”
This provides a dizzying amount of information. We’ll likely discuss this view in a later 201 blog, but at least some of it will probably make sense to you.
At this point, you can clear the cookies just for the site you’re on if you want. This is a "reasonably" simple way to see if cookies are in use on the site you’re looking at, but it's really not ley-person friendly.
2. The Storage Inspector
You can also see all of the cookies your browser has recorded in Firefox using SHIFT-F9 to bring up the “Storage Inspector.” From there, you’ll see a menu on the left for different ways the site can store information. One of those is “Cookies.” If you expand and highlight the site you’re interested in, the grid will then contain all the cookies that are currently active for the site.
What you're probably going to be most interested in are the “Name” and “Value” fields.
Clicking on a cookie record will bring up the details, but to get a good look at a cookie, you have to expand the “Data” window on the right side of the SHIFT-F9 window.
Just to give you a little taste of what you might find, I tried the Wikipedia cookie page. And, guess what?
It saved the location I’m browsing the page from in a cookie called “GeoIP.”
Why does Wikipedia need to know where I am to provide the information I requested???
See how this works? Imagine if you’ve been doing personal research at the library, and you log in to a site you’re using. That site may put your location data in a cookie. Some cookies stick around – so later another website you visit can capture that cookie. So, now, two websites can figure out that you’ve visited this other site from the library.
Yikes! What do I do?
Make it a regular practice to clear your cookies before you move onto or away from sites you don’t want people to know you’re on.
This does delete helpful cookies like session logins but we feel it’s worth the inconvenience.
2 - Use Private Browsing Modes
Another approach is to use the incognito mode available in most browsers when doing personal research on LGBTQ+ related things. Be sure to start a new incognito session every time you want to go to a new page (easier said than done).
To do this, you can copy the link you want to go to next by right-clicking on the link and selecting something like “Copy Link Address.” After you’ve copied the link, you can close your incognito session and start a new one. Then copy that link in the new incognito session.
This prevents the sites from talking to each other through your browser.
Yeah, but how???
- How do I see and control cookies in my web browser?
- More on the Firefox Storage Inspector.
- Get to know how different cookies work using this awesome Infographic!
The “View Page Info” feature in Firefox is relatively unique to that browser and can really help you just get to know some of the basic things that are going on when you browse websites – knowledge is power :)