When visiting websites for the first time, you’ve probably noticed a small and rather annoying popup asking you to accept cookies. As you may know, these are not the chocolate chip kind. Cookies are tiny files that websites send to your browser for the purpose of maintaining a record of the interaction between the website server and your device.
The information stored in cookies varies depending on the information the website you visit wants to keep. This information may include your IP address, your authentication data, your saved preferences, and other activities on the website. More specifically, session cookies note whether you’re a first-time visitor or not. That’s how other pages on a website you’re browsing know that you’re logged in. When you terminate the session by closing the browser, session cookies are deleted.
Persistent cookies are the variety of cookies that are stored on your device. They are the reason your complete email address is suggested when you only type the first letter of your email in subsequent attempts to log into, say, Facebook.
In strict terms, cookies are only shared between your device and the server of the website with which your device is communicating. However, you should be concerned with what the websites you visit do with the information obtained from cookies. Even more important is the question of how cookies can be used to compromise your online privacy and security.
Are cookies a threat to your privacy and security?
Once your personal data is obtained using cookies, some websites use it to send you targeted ads, or they sell your information to advertisers. Once that information is in the hand of advertisers, neither the website nor you have control over what it is used for. Even more problematic is the fact that your information can be shared without your knowledge or consent.
The ads you see displayed on web pages come from servers to which numerous websites are connected. When you click on an ad, the advertiser records the activity and when you visit other websites associated with that advertiser, cookies can be used to identify you as well as your browsing and buying behavior. Consider all the websites you’ve ever visited and the number of advertisers associated with each one and you can get an idea of the vast data that various advertisers have on our browsing activities.
Online marketers may not even be your greatest threat, though. In the event that a hacker manages to get into your device, they have access to all your cookie information, including all the websites that you visit and your login credentials. With just the right information, the hacker can visit a website, such as your bank’s website, posing as you and carry out transactions. Hackers can also exploit this security vulnerability to target you with phishing attacks.
At this point, you may be wondering if there’s anything you can do to prevent your privacy from being compromised by cookies. The first and easiest step is to disable and delete cookies on your device. However, the most effective way of protecting yourself is setting up a virtual private network (VPN).
Disabling and deleting cookies
An easy way to improve your privacy is by disabling and deleting cookies after browsing. However, note that disabling all cookies may cause some websites to malfunction, and this can make browsing quite problematic. So, rather than block all cookies, you can allow cookies only for the website you’re visiting, and disable cookies for the rest. You do this by blocking third-party cookies, something you should do whenever you’re on a public computer.
Using a VPN to take back control of your privacy from cookies
For the method above to be effective, you may have to adopt a level of vigilance that many people would find rather daunting. After all, you want to browse the Internet with relative ease, without having to worry about your privacy every time you visit a new website. Therein lies the quandary when it comes to online security, or any security for that matter: balancing convenience and security.
Fortunately, with a VPN, you can create a powerful barrier against the threats associated with cookies. A VPN is an online privacy and security tool that enables you to hide your online activity and disguise your IP address. By hiding your IP address, you effectively disconnect your identity from the cookies that websites create, making it impossible for anyone to use them to track your online activity.
Only a high-quality VPN can give the level of privacy and security you need to fend off threats associated with cookies and other security vulnerabilities you’re exposed to while online. Therefore, when deciding which VPN to use for maximum privacy, it is essential that the service integrates well with the browsers you use.
Our recommended list of VPN browser extensions to protect against cookies
In addition to its top-tier VPN software, ExpressVPN offers an exceptional browser extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. Features on the extensions include a kill switch, DNS leak protection, and IPv6 leak protection. The extensions are also highly intuitive in terms of usability.
Another advantage of this provider’s extensions is that they hide your location from websites that employ HTML5 Geo-location technology. It is worth noting, though, that to use the extensions, you need to have the full VPN installed on your desktop. With more than 1500 servers in 90+ countries, this service performs well. The reduction in speeds is minimal. The provider also has a strict no-logs policy.
Canadian-based TunnelBear offers impressive performance and a simple interface that even beginners will find easy to use. To get its browser extension up and running, you only need to install the extension on your Opera or Chrome browser and sign up with your email address. Click on the icon and you instantly have at your disposal 20 locations, including the US, Europe, Hong Kong, India, and Mexico, among others.
The downside of TunnelBear is that its standard free plan caps data at 500 MB monthly, which you can easily exhaust in a single browsing session. You can increase the limit by tweeting about the service and receiving an additional 1GB. Nonetheless, the service is fast and reliable.
Free VPN browser extensions are usually of poor quality. Windscribe is the exception to this rule as it has more features and fewer limits among other things. One major advantage of this service is that it requires no signing up. You get 2GB of data every month just by choosing a username. Providing your email gets you 10GB, which is far more than most of its competitors will give you.
It has a feature called Windscribe Cruise Control which selects the fastest server as you browse and automatically switches to a different server when you run into a blocked resource. As a result, you get around some Geo-restrictions without even knowing they were there to begin with.
The highly intuitive HotSpot Shield VPN is among the most well-established in the industry. Its Chrome and Firefox extensions are available for free, and you don’t need to give away your email address or any other personal information to use the service. With a few clicks, you can access any of a number of server locations (except the US and UK), including France, Czech Republic, India, Germany, Russian Federation, and the Netherlands among others.
You get 750 MB daily with the free version. Performance is not as reliable as the other services on this list, though. To make up for it, you can use the service without having to register. Overall, HotSpot Shield is worth trying.
ZenMate is a popular German-based VPN with more than 41 million subscribers. You get free access to basic VPN services using the provider’s Opera, Firefox, and Chrome browser extensions. You need to register to use the service, and keep in mind that you may run into some ads.
The service offers four server locations: Romania, Germany, Hong Kong, and the US. But on the positive side, ZenMate’s extensions are easy-to-use, allowing you to connect the moment you select a server location from the list. Unlike other services, it doesn’t have a limit on the amount of data, meaning you can use the service as often and as much as you want.
As the world becomes increasingly connected through the Internet, it is imperative that you take measures to protect yourself against the rising number of threats to your online privacy and security. That means not only using your common sense and avoiding visiting risky websites, but also using all the tools available.
Cookies are among the aspects of browsing that expose you to some of these dangers. Disabling and deleting your cookies is one of the methods of ensuring you are secure. However, a more effective alternative to taking direct control over your cookies is using a good VPN browser extension, such as the ones listed in this article.