Does your browser feed the cookie monster--or starve it? | The Download Blog - CNET Download.com

Does your browser feed the cookie monster--or starve it?

Not all tracking cookies are created equal, and as Google just reminded us, neither are the ways in which your browser handles them. Here's what the five major browsers do for your cookie 'problem.'

Firefox's Privacy options.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Google's latest public display of cookie addiction revealed that while the ad side of Google enthusiastically embraces third-party cookies, the browser division is more hesitant. Here's how the five major browsers--Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Opera--protect you from those third-party tracking cookies.

But first: what's a tracking cookie? And why are they so important as a component of your online privacy?

A tracking cookie can be used to follow people around the Web as they jump from site to site. Though your IP address or your HTTP request header's referral field can also be used to accomplish this, in part, tracking cookies allow for more accurate tracks.

When you visit a page and there's no cookie present in the request, the server assumes that this is your first page visited. It then creates a random character string and sends it, as a cookie, back to you along with the requested page. That cookie then gets sent to all new pages you visit, and in turn creates a log of the cookie itself, all the URLs visited, and when you visited them on the server.

Tracking Protection Lists on Internet Explorer.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Of course, this has gotten extremely sophisticated over the years, but tracking cookies have been a security and privacy concern since the mid-1990s. The real-world equivalent is nothing less than being followed and analyzed for marketing purposes during each of your daily activities.

Sarah Downey, an attorney and privacy analyst at the online privacy firm Abine, which makes the Do Not Track Plus add-on, said that online tracking-based privacy violations are fast approaching a critical mass. "The lack of online privacy is a huge problem, and with the Google news...it's getting worse and more complicated. Most consumers don't know what to do about it."

Browsing cookie-free may sound like the easiest solution, but it also disables a lot of what's useful about the modern Web. Session cookie information, for example, will keep you logged in to a site even if you close the tab. This can be useful for computers that have only one user. So, the solution has to be nuanced to support the benefits of the modern Web while not throwing buckets of personal information at data aggregators.

Except for Chrome, all browsers support the standard Do Not Track header. This tells Web sites not to track you, but it's respected by a tiny percentage of sites. You can also force Private Browsing to run all the time, which prevents cookies from being saved, though you can still be tracked via your IP address.

Chrome's privacy controls.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

  • In Firefox, go to Options > Privacy. The first option is to enable Do Not Track, while just below it you can make the browser run in Private Browsing mode all the time.

  • In Internet Explorer, Do Not Track comes courtesy the Tracking Protection List feature. Go to the Gear icon > Safety > Tracking Protection and choose "Get a Tracking Protection List online" to install one. You can't run InPrivate by default from the Options menu as with Firefox, but it is an option.

  • In Safari, the process is even more convoluted. Go to Preferences > Advanced, then check "Show Develop menu in Menu bar." You might have to unhide your Menu bar if it's not displayed. The Develop option will appear between Bookmarks and Window; then choose "Send Do Not Track HTTP Header." Safari does have an option for Private Browsing on-demand.

  • Opera currently supports Do Not Track only in its upcoming version 12. The feature is available in the developer's preview, Opera 12 Wahoo. Go to Preferences > Advanced > Security > "Ask websites not to track me" to enable it. Opera's big Private difference is that it can run on a per-tab basis, so it's important to pay attention to what you're doing in each tab. Go to Opera menu > Tabs and Windows, and choose Private for either a tab or a window.

  • Chrome has got a lot of advanced security features, but it doesn't offer support for Do Not Track. Its private browsing mode is called Incognito and can be activated by choosing "New Incognito window" from the wrench menu.

    This window appears when you run Opera's Private mode.

    (Credit: Opera)

    The strongest argument against blocking third-party cookies outright is that many sites will block content if they detect that your browser won't accept cookies. There are several good options around this, though recently I've been fairly impressed with the aforementioned Do Not Track Plus because it doesn't break social-networking tools.

    Looming just off-stage is mobile browsing, which is expected to grow tremendously this year. Privacy and tracking will be top concerns for a long time to come.

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