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Understanding tracking cookies and how to clean them

Dominik

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Cookies, the Internet technology, are a class of files used for storing user information with the goal of personalizing, localizing, or otherwise adapting to the preferences of their individual users. Many cookies can be labeled as tracking cookies seeing how tracking basic information is their whole point of existence. But

While any extra bit of user data being tracked also represents an additional security risk, whether due to targeted attacks or as part of less malevolent data leaks, the key characteristic of cookies is that they largely or exclusively store data locally. Your Reddit subscriptions and UI color preferences aren’t being shared with YouTube, for example. At least not directly.

Everything is relative, but most of all, cookies

Even if that happened, a typical cookie file is unintelligible to virtually any algorithm other than the one that generated it in the first place. In that way, they’re much like RFID tags, bar codes, or QR codes – just in HTTP form. Therefore, everyone can see them but their creators can – and do – limit their legibility to a large, often absolute degree.

All of the above defines first-party cookies, which is a different classification of the same tech. It refers to data packets created by individual domains on a per-user basis that are only applicable internally. I.e., website administrators can use them to collect analytics data useful for determining how to improve their content and discovering what their existing, recurring readership is interested in the most.

Sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum are third-party cookies that originate from domains that you probably wouldn’t be familiar with because you don’t frequent them. Hence the reference to some unknown party. In reality, these are most commonly created by advertising networks like the ones ran by Google and Facebook. And by visiting websites integrating such elements, you did, indeed, request access to content from those third parties, as well. This makes the whole party-allegiance division of cookies more of a philosophical issue than a technical one. Because from a technological standpoint, a cookie is a cookie – it’s meant to log your interactions with individual domains and help their owners craft better experiences.

Naturally, they usually aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. Especially this deep into the Web 2.0 era, during which we even witnessed how an army of cookies can humble even a political bloc as powerful as the European Union. As was the case with the malicious compliance that de facto crippled the majority of the long-looming GDPR legislation, rendering it completely ineffective.

Why are they called cookies?

Regarding the origin of the term, it’s generally attributed to Louis J. Montulli II, an Internet browser pioneer from Kansas whose CV includes way more impressive things than naming an early Internet technology after a little-known slang for fortune cookies. Like inventing that same technology and making dozens of other key contributions to the development of the modern World Wide Web ecosystem.

Montulli himself says the seminal phrase that served as the inspiration for the moniker was “magic cookies”. This was back in mid-’94, after he already became a household name among stateside codes for co-creating one of the first Internet browsers ever – a GUI-less program for archaic cursor terminals called Lynx.

Those were HTTP cookies, but rabbit – or cookie jar hole, if you will – runs deep when it comes to the subject of localized browsing experiences. The name inspired many other IT labels over the years, like in the case of the JavaScript API Evercookie.

How to clean tracking cookies?

The step-by-step methodology for cleaning your device of tracking cookies will depend on its operating system version and your browser of choice. But every such undertaking tends to start on your browsing history tab. If you’re a Windows user, the CTRL + H shortcut will probably do the trick, no matter the program. On macOS, you’ll want to hit Command + H. Whereas most mobile browsers usually require some combination of a tiny cornered menu icon and selecting the equivalent to a browsing history option from a dropdown menu. Alternatively, you might have to open the main settings menu before finding your mobile history log.

Either way, the option you’re looking for next is most often called “Clear/delete browsing data.” Of course, that’s the nuclear option, which is always the one we’d recommend if you suspect any foul play from your cookies, your browser is slow, or you simply haven’t nuked anything into crumbles for a while now. You don’t have to delete the rest of your data like your browsing history and local cache.

Yet the alternative is only advisable if you’re seeking to act preventively against a small number of sites. As manually deleting cookies on a per-domain basis is pretty pointless. They’re all exchanging HTML data with your browser and always have been – there’s no grand conspiracy here, really. Regardless, if you want to go that route, take a look at your browser’s URL bar, you’ll usually see a lock and key icon on its left-hand side. Clicking or tapping that should present you with domain-level history-clearing commands on most of today’s popular browsers.

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