Blocking cookies and using a VPN can keep third parties from tracking your web movements.
This week, a reader writes, “I’d like to know what would happen if I disabled cookies on my MacBook Pro.
“I understand — kind of — what they are supposed to do, but it has always seemed a little invasive to me, particularly the sites that I use that will send me an email after I have visited that asks, ‘See anything you like?’ And I believe they may also influence what I see on Instagram.
“It’s like they are looking over my shoulder and I find it most annoying. Can I surf the web without these things?”
This is a complex topic. I’ll try to explain things simply, but know there is a lot I won’t be able to cover in this space.
Browser cookies are small bits of code that websites and other sources use to keep track of your internet surfing habits.
Some cookies are useful. They can help you stay signed into accounts or services (first-party cookies). Others exist to track your movements around the internet, reporting back to whoever is paying for the cookie placement (third-party cookies).
If you subscribe to a website, blocking cookies on that site will mean you’ll need to log in every time you visit.
Telling the good cookies from the bad ones is difficult, even for those of us who are very technical. You can see all the cookies your browser is using by going to the Security and Privacy section of the browser’s settings. You’ll be surprised at the number of cookies on some sites. Of course none of them tell you exactly what they do.
The cookies section of your browser settings will let you clear cookies any time you like with just the press of a button or two.
You don’t have to clear them all at once. You can pick and choose from the full list.
You can choose to block just third-party cookies or all cookies. If you’re curious, you should clear them and even block them for a while and see how your browsing experience changes. Blocking third-party cookies is simple and won’t make much of a change in how you browse. Blocking all cookies will make your internet more cumbersome. I personally don’t mind cookies for sites I visit for my own benefit (weather, news or shopping). Having to enter my location every time I visit weather.com or pizzahut.com would be annoying.
I also encourage everyone to read all about cookies.
Tracking isn’t just done through cookies. Search engines can also track your online movements.
You can try using a non-tracking search engine like Duck, Duck, Go. I’ve been using it for a while, and I’m happy with the searches, but I’m not really sure whether I’m safer online.
Users can also use a VPN service (virtual private network), which creates an encrypted tunnel for your data, protects your online identity by hiding your IP address, and allows you to use public Wi-Fi hotspots safely.
I don’t use a personal VPN, but if you’d like to read about some of the best ones, search for VPN at thewirecutter.com.
Finally, you can use a feature of your browser to keep your activities private. Look in the file menu for an option to open a new browsing window that will be called a Private Window or Incognito Window. It might be called Incognito mode.
When you are finished surfing and close the private window, no browser history, cookies or personal data will be saved.
You can do a lot to improve your privacy online. I encourage you to try any or all of these and see how things go. You can always go back to the way things were if you’re not satisfied with the results.