At SaferVPN we say that we protect your privacy, and it’s true. Having said that, there are some things that are out of our control for any VPN provider to protect, it’s up to you. I thought it would be a good idea to clarify once and for all what can be done to protect your online privacy. For that, you need to understand some basics about cookies, because that’s how websites track your activities, and also how others who are sharing your computer can know what you’ve been up to on the web.
An introduction to tracking cookies
Browser cookies, tracking cookies or simply just cookies are tiny plain text files that are saved within your browser when you’re surfing the web. The main usage is to personalize your browsing experience by tracking and storing some of your activities. By uniquely identifying you, the idea is that you’ll get a richer and more customized experience. Have you ever searched for something on Google and then suddenly noticed that all online ads are trying to sell you products related to your search? It’s because of those cookies. Some people like it, some don’t. On the one hand, you get ads that fit your demands better and sometimes even a discount if the advertisers are nice enough. On the other hand, it can give you a creepy feeling as if Big Brother was watching you. When you’ve read through this guide, you’ll be ready to judge for yourself.
There are also so called Third Party cookies, which Mozilla explains perfectly:
“Third-party cookies are cookies that are set by a website other than the one you are currently on. For example, cnn.com might have a Facebook like button on their site. That like button will set a cookie that can be read by Facebook. That would be considered a third-party cookie.”
Blocking third-party cookies means the web browser will not let websites set cookies that are not part of the domain (web address) where you are going. Luckily, you can block these in all major browsers.By blocking third-party cookies, you prevent websites on other domains from putting a cookie in your browser. This will stop advertising networks from tracking you and serving you those “personalised” ads. Here’s how to block third-party cookies in Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer. Safari blocks third-party cookies by default. Kudos to Apple!
How to block third-party cookies in Mozilla Firefox
1. Go to the Options menu.
2. Go the the Privacy tab and then under Tracking, choose ‘Tell sites that I do not want to be tracked’. Under History, select that Firefox will ‘Use custom settings for history’. Then select what you want Firefox to remember, whether you want Firefox to accept third-party cookies or not, and if so, for how long they should be kept. You also have the option to let Firefox clear all your history each time you close your browser.
How to block third-party cookies in Google Chrome
1. Go to the Settings menu.
2. Scroll to the bottom and click on “Show advanced settings”. In the Privacy section, click “Content settings”:
Then, in the next windows you can “Block sites from setting any data” and “Block third-party cookies and site data”. Further down there are more options if you really want to go all in!
Different uses of cookies
Authentication: Once you log in to a secure area of a website, say Facebook or Gmail, their server will save a cookie which will authenticate you. Without cookies your browser can’t remember your login details. For example, you’d have to log back into your e-mail every time you’re opening up a new e-mail, even though you’re already logged in. That’s because any e-mail or new page you’re opening within that website are separate from each other and can’t know what you’ve been up to on the last page. Thanks to cookies, the website can authenticate you wherever you go on it.
Sessions: These are like “bookmarks” for websites because the website servers rarely have any kind of “memory” – every time you more forward to another page, the website’s server just forgets all the info from the previous one. Shopping carts on e-tailers are a great example. For example, if you add an item to your basket and then continue browsing, it’s thanks to the session cookie that the website knows what you’ve added in your basket. Don’t worry though, these cookies are usually valid until your browsing session ends.
Preferences: Notice how some websites lets you choose different layouts and other ways of customizing your usage of the site? That’s thanks to tracking cookies, which stores all your preferences. These cookies can also be used to track your behavior on a site like Amazon: notice how you always get product suggestions that follow you allover their site but also on the web. Every time you look at a product they inject your browser with a cookie, even if you’re not logged in to Amazon. Tracking cookies track your surfing habits over time and can be set to be valid for any amount of time: weeks, months or more even!
How do cookies affect my security?
Some people mistakenly believe that cookies are some kind of malware. They aren’t. They simply are plain text files which can’t be neither executed or self-executed. There’s no way for them to reproduce by themselves and spread to other networks or computers. However, having said that, they could be used for mean purposes if they’re used as spyware. That’s why your anti-malware software might warn you against using cookies from some websites.
WARNING! There’s a big risk if your cookies are sent over the web as clear text without any encryption. Keep in mind that anything personal could be saved into cookies, for example your SSN, credit card details, e-mail address and more. This means that if the cookies aren’t sent over HTTPS, they’re readable by anyone on the network. Any hacker connected to the same network can then use a sniffing tool (a software that intercepts all traffic on a network) and steal all your sensitive data. Read our guide on public WiFi security to learn how to safely encrypt your data when you’re on a shared network.
and what about privacy?
If you’re worried about your privacy, we recommend you use your browser’s privacy mode. That way, your browser doesn’t read or store any cookies for that session. Also, you could simply clear your cookies, or just change the settings for them.
If you’re concerned about others’ getting access to your private information when using a shared computer, then private browsing mode is even more important. You could of course just clear your session’s data when you’re done or set your browser to do it automatically for you. Unless you want anyone else to know what fishy sites you’ve been looking at, your choice!
What to do about your tracking cookies
First of all, you can start using your browser’s private mode to disable cookies and prevent your browser from storing your web history. Very simple and straightforward.
Another option is to switch from Google to the privacy-oriented search engine DuckDuckGo which doesn’t store cookies, user logs, or IP addresses. If your major concern is that Google knows everything about your preferences and searches, this is a great option.
You could also just surf like you normally would and then delete your cookies and history after each session. However, it’s easy to forget erasing them unless you set your browser to do so, and worse, you’ll have to log back in to any of the websites which normally remembers your logins. The advantage of course is that advertisers will know less about you and your online activities.
Bonus: Sometimes a VPN isn’t enough…
On top of that, I’d also like to mention the issue of keeping your online identity private. As TorrentFreak reports, no VPN will protect you if you’re careless with your online identity. The article describes how a pirate nicknamed TheCod3r was jailed for movie pirating even though he was using a VPN to remain private (nope, I swear, he did not use SaferVPN!). You might ask how? Simple. The guy was – sorry to say it – not very clever about how he used his alias The Cod3r online. First of all, he had the same nickname on the dating site PlentyOfFish (which featured his age and name). On top of that, he openly sold pirated copies of the latest movies on Facebook. It wasn’t a hard puzzle to solve for the authorities once they could join all the dots, resulting in 33 months prison time. Moral of the story: use a VPN to remain anonymous, but do your part and beware of how you use your nicknames and act on social media. Having said that, we’re not encouraging piracy.