July 11, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Computer cookies gone wild, your privacy, & an ‘off’ experiment

cookie monster delete cookies
Cookie monster contemplating deleting cookies. Image from web labeled for for re-use.

When I think of cookies, I first think of chocolate chip, peanut butter, or macaroons, but an arguably more important kind these days is the type of thing that websites implant on your computer sometimes to monitor your web activities. Not delicious.

I did a little experiment inspired by the New York Times Privacy Project. I essentially turned off the ability of websites to place cookies on my browsers on all my computers at home.

At the start I thought, “Cheers to privacy!” but then I wondered how long it’d last. Now at the end I’m more swearing than anything else.

Today’s post is about my experience. It didn’t go so well.

What are cookies and why should you care?

Cookies are a big deal because I don’t think many people realize how many kajillion of these things that websites are putting on their computers and how those can be used by advertisers to keep tabs on what is subsequently done on the web.

Then according to the NY Times and others that information is often sold to third parties who use it to build profiles of you for advertising. In short, you ought to learn more about this kind of cookie and make a conscious decision about whether you want them on your computers. This one quote I found online from a pro-cookie website angle might make you think twice:

“One of the most advantages of the cookies is their persistence , When the cookie is set on the client’s browser , it can persist for days , months or years , This makes it easy to save user preferences & visit information”

These little bites of text on your various computers might have been collecting data on you, your family including your kids, etc. for years. I recommend this NYT piece, “This Article is Spying on You.

When I first heard about computer cookies long ago, I remember thinking, “Why the hell should I let some website put a file on my computer?”  It turns out computer life without cookies may be as hard as real life without the actual treats.

For how to turn cookies off on Safari see here and for Chrome see here.

Many websites don’t work in cookie-off mode

It turns out that cookies can do useful things like aid in logging in to some sites, which I found out during my experiment with cookies off. Surprisingly, as I navigated to various sites in the cookie-off mode, many nagged me about my blocking cookies or just wouldn’t work at all. Bad things kept happening.

My web-browser based institutional email didn’t work. Gmail didn’t work. Banking doesn’t work.

More trivial things went wrong too. I like to do the Sunday NY Times Crossword puzzle and that didn’t seem to work in cookie-off mode. Other fun things didn’t work as well. It was pretty aggravating.

I ended up modifying my experiment on one computer by allowing myself to manually opt-in for certain sites to allow cookie placement one by one. Even that didn’t solve some problems such as checking my email. It turns out that websites have many slightly different versions and you have to allow cookie placement for every one you want to use. Even when I gave many versions of some websites permission to set cookies they still didn’t work when my general cookie mode was “off”.

Surprises

I also found that sometimes certain web browsers would turn “accept cookies” back on mysteriously.

In addition, even in “off” mode on Chrome, I found some new cookies accumulating still at times! I only found that by going deep into the settings (they don’t make it easy) and looking at the list of cookies on my computer. You can imagine that made me happy.

Admittedly this very site, The Niche, sets a few cookies as well via WordPress, but it seems like generally for benign reasons according to the web. Some of these  cookies are set by little programs that help run the site called plugins:

“By default, WordPress uses cookies to manage logged-in user sessions and authentication. It also uses cookies to remember a user’s name and email address if they fill out a comment form. However, many WordPress plugins on your website may also set their own cookies.”

You can read The Niche privacy policy here.

Some sites are off the cookie charts though into the scores or hundreds from just clicking on a few of their pages.

Looking ahead, I don’t quite know what to do or recommend about computer cookies. In a way I kind of like having my computers in the cookie-off mode and then just manually allowing cookies, but it is clunky, more time-consuming, and as I said sometimes it just doesn’t work at all for many sites these days.

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