January 14, 2021

Cookies on the web: Good or bad for privacy?

Do you accept cookies on the web? Perhaps you only do it to make the banner go away asap. But, what exactly is a cookie and what does it do?

Ever since the European Union’s digital privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect in 2018, web surfers worldwide have observed a surge in web cookie notifications. You see, a website typically doesn’t only make itself available in Europe. So in order to comply with the GDPR, most companies on the web have made cookie notifications available to everyone, no matter where in the world you are.

It’s natural to have lots of questions about this:

  • What are cookies? I obviously can’t eat them!
  • Are cookies something that has only existed in the past few years?
  • Are cookies good?
  • Are cookies bad?
  • Should I worry about cookies?
  • Should I click “okay” when a website asks my permission to use cookies?

So let’s answer these questions because you deserve to have answers. And understanding cookies will help you use the internet in a much safer way.

What are cookies?

Cookies are text files that websites and web applications can create and store in your browser. They’re used in browsers on all kinds of devices– desktops, laptops, phones, tablets, pretty much anything with a browser. They’re used to store information about how you use their website. The information could be all sorts of things. An online store might make a cookie with the items you added to your shopping cart. Any type of website could store a record of which pages you visited. Your username if you have an account in their web app. Your settings for the website, such as whether you prefer “Dark Mode” or “Light Mode,” or which city or town you’re in. The possibilities are endless.

Are cookies on the web something that has only existed in the past few years?

Web cookies have been around for nearly 27 years! Mosaic Netscape started supporting them all the way back in 1994. Soon after that, Netscape became its own company and they released their own Netscape Navigator. Those are very old browsers that aren’t used anymore. Lots of browsers that few people have ever heard of were used before Microsoft Internet Explorer became popular in the late 1990s, Mozilla Firefox debuted in the early 2000s, and Google released Chrome in the late 2000s.

Pretty much all browsers since 1994 have supported cookies, and websites have used them very frequently for that entire time. Laypeople may only have become aware of cookies in the past few years because the GDPR has made it necessary to ask users for permission to use them.

Are cookies good?

They can be, depending on how they’re used!

For example, you may enjoy checking your local weather forecast online. The weather website will have stored a cookie in your browser that says your location and how you prefer temperatures to be presented. You may find it convenient, so I don’t have to hunt for the weather forecast at your location and then click on the Celsius button.

For another example, when you shop for multiple items in an online store, you may want the site to remember all the items you’re trying to purchase so the information can be kept in your shopping cart. Thus, you’re not restricted to buying one item at a time.

There are many good and helpful uses for cookies.

Are cookies bad?

Unfortunately, yes they can be.

For example, if an online shopping site you use your credit card with stores your credit card number in a cookie, that’s very dangerous. Cookies are unencrypted so anyone that can acquire the cookie can acquire its information. Cyber attackers and other hostile parties obtaining your credit card number is very bad news! Criminals can make charges to your card, and they may also be able to pretend to be you by engaging in identity fraud.

For another example, cookies can be used so that a website can see what you’ve been doing on the web when you aren’t on their website – i.e. a view of your web browsing history. That’s a gross privacy violation!

Should I worry about cookies?

As you can see, the question of whether cookies are good or bad is like asking if fire is good or bad. Fire is good when it’s cooking your food and keeping your house warm. And fire is bad when it’s burning your house down. It’s all a matter of how you use the fire. The same applies to web cookies.

Whether or not you should worry about cookies is all a matter of trust. Do you trust the website? You might decide to trust Amazon or your bank, and not trust some organization you’ve never heard of. It’s a judgment call and a nuanced matter.

Should I click “okay” when a website asks my permission to use cookies?

Only when you trust the website or organization and not clicking on “okay” could break the site’s functionality– how it works for you.

This is kind of like the question of whether or not you should open email attachments. Email attachments can be useful. Or they might be malware, such as a computer virus. As a cybersecurity specialist, I wish I could answer these questions with a clear “yes” or “no.” But, it’s all a matter of trust and your judgment.

Also, most browsers will allow you to clear all of your cookies, all some cookies, or deny all cookie storage requests. You can even set your browser to clear all cookies after you close it.

Cookies and Startpage

If you’re curious about cookies, here’s what you should know about how Startpage uses them.

First of all, Startpage never uses tracking cookies. What are tracking cookies? Those are cookies that follow your web browsing activity as you go from webpage to webpage, website to app. Startpage protects you from tracking cookies as you search, unlike non-private search engines.

Startpage does use session-only cookies. Those are cookies that are only used while you’re on this site or using Startpage web search, either directly or through one of our partners. When you leave Startpage completely and go to another website into your browser tab, the cookie disappears. Startpage’s session-only cookies are used to remember some of your preferences while you use our web search.

If you prefer to not use cookies to remember your preferences, you can save your settings without a cookie by using a URL. You can do this by visiting the Settings, saving your setting preferences, and scrolling all the way to the bottom section to copy the URL.

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Cookies and Anonymous View

JavaScript is a web programming language. It’s commonly used on websites and web apps you visit every day. JavaScript enables webpages to do lots of cool stuff, such as rendering dynamic (changeable) content. Websites use JavaScript to animate buttons, deliver an interactive browser game, and many other things.

But JavaScript can also be used in ways that reduce your privacy online. For example, JavaScript can be used to see which browser and operating system you have, or where in the world you are. That sort of tracking uses both JavaScript and web cookies, working together.

You could protect your privacy on the web by disabling JavaScript in your browser. Unfortunately, a lot of your favorite websites won’t work properly if you do that. Sometimes you won’t see much of anything at all on a webpage without JavaScript.

So Startpage has a solution. It’s called Anonymous View. With Anonymous View, you can use JavaScript in websites without risking your privacy. That’s because if the JavaScript in a webpage looks for information about your phone or computer, the website will see Startpage, not you. You can enjoy Anonymous View simply by using Startpage to do a web search, and by clicking on the Anonymous View link in your search result.

Now that you understand cookies a little better, you can browse the web with confidence.

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