You can scarcely enter a website these days without hitting a prompt asking you to enable cookies. Things get even more irksome when you have to choose whether to enable 3rd party cookies. What are these anyway? How do they differ from other cookies? Are they safe? Find all of this out and more here!
What’s the Difference Between 1st and 3rd Party Cookies?
Every website has to generate some information about its users to function fully. That includes logins, shopping cart contents, and site-specific user preferences. We refer to this information as cookies.
The term 1st party denotes how a site that places such data on your device is the only one that will access it. 1st party cookies are a core part of most websites. Disabling them would cause part of their features to break, making them unusable.
A website may also host cookies owned by someone else. A third party or tracking cookies. These cookies aren’t necessary for the site your own to function but provide additional services. Live chat and advertisement cookies are the most common.
How Do These Cookies Track You?
It’s worth noting that not all 3rd party cookies track your online whereabouts. For example, many sites use live chat to improve their customer experience. Once you visit such a website, it will automatically connect to the chat’s host – a third party – and install the necessary cookies to enable communication.
Ads are among, if not the most impactful revenue stream for many sites. Third parties handle their ad space, and their cookies end up in your browser even if you don’t click on anything. These cookies collect data on the sites you visit and the items you want.
After a while, ads based on your browsing and purchase history start replacing random ones or ads that make sense in the context of a specific website. It can be uncanny to spend a few minutes searching for guitars or cat food only to get ads for them no matter where you go afterward.
Are 3rd Party Cookies Dangerous?
On their own, 3rd party cookies don’t pose a risk to users. One could even argue that they can be beneficial. Sites will show you ads one way or another, so marketers point out it can be better to receive ones you’ll find helpful. It’s also convenient to autofill parts of forms for quicker sign-ups.
However, 3rd party cookies come with ethical and security concerns. Many people find the thought of companies knowing which sites they engage with and what their interests are distasteful. Privacy is a significant and valid concern, so much so that it involves legislative regulation in some parts of the world.
The EU’s GDPR states that sites must inform visitors of their cookie policies in layman’s terms. If the sites use 3rd party cookies, visitors have the right to opt out and must give explicit consent before the site can use them.
Problems arise if cybercriminals get a hold of your cookie history. Analyzing it may reveal enough patterns and information to compromise your identity, credit card numbers, and passwords. Cookies, in general, are an attack vector hackers have learned to exploit in sophisticated ways.
You can protect yourself against such attacks with some forethought, though. The most effective way to eliminate cookies is to delete your browser’s cache. You can do it manually or have the browser clear the cache whenever you end a session.
The drawback is that your browser will no longer store your login information. The inconvenience may be a blessing in disguise since it will force you to reexamine the way you treat passwords. Rather than rely on a handful of passwords someone could easily guess, you should start using a password manager.
Password managers are tools that store your login credentials across devices for as many accounts as you need. They generate lengthy passwords that are extremely hard to crack and can replace dozens in one go. It’s easy to copy-paste a required password from the manager’s vault, so logins become much more secure because they are slightly more tedious.
The Future of 3rd-Party Cookies
Even though they help the world’s leading advertisers make a tidy profit, 3rd party cookies are on their way out. Most browsers have started blocking them by default. Even Chrome is set to do so by 2024.
With this avenue closing, companies are turning to other tracking forms, like browser fingerprinting. This tracking method exploits the system data your browser needs to send as part of its communication protocols.
Specific hardware, current software versions, your time zone, and keyboard layout aren’t good enough identifiers individually. Combined, they create a unique ID that serves advertisers’ purposes and the cookies we’re phasing out.
The takeaway is that other actors are adapting, so you should too. Be mindful of your browsing habits and take advantage of cybersecurity tools & best practices to enjoy safer and less annoying browsing.