By now you’re used to the constant intrusion of cookie pop-ups. The question is always the same: “Do you accept cookies from this website?” You probably just click yes and don’t think twice about navigating through the labyrinthian settings nested in obscure menus.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. While we can’t blame you for not wanting to dive into each website’s detailed and often confounding cookie permissions, there are some steps you can take to stop websites from tracking you and also get rid of the pop-ups completely.
The explosion of cookie consent pop-ups started in 2018 and is partly the fault of the General Data Protection Regulation. The change was meant to make it easier for people to understand and control how they are tracked online. In reality, it has made the internet even more unusable.
The way many websites have implemented cookie notices hasn’t helped. Dark patterns trick people into clicking yes, while some websites have been found ignoring people’s choices entirely. And a lot of websites rely on third parties to provide their cookie pop-up tech. The result? Confusion. Your options for controlling cookies are grouped into bizarre categories such as “device characteristics” and “performance cookies.” And, to make matters worse, data protection regulators have done little to make the situation any better.
“Cookie consent banners are a joke,” says Sergio Maldonado, cofounder and CEO at software development firm PrivacyCloud. “Rather than helping people protect their future choices, cookie consent requirements are extremely annoying and often run counter to accessibility guidelines on mobile devices, making life harder for people with all sorts of disabilities.”
So what can be done? Aside from pushing for big changes—enforcing laws, improving the consent notices, and rethinking the way online tracking works—there are a few things you can do to help yourself. Here are some tips to consider.
Reject All Cookie Consent Notices
Midas Nouwens has been inspecting cookie consent pop-ups for years. The digital rights academic aims to show data protection regulators that cookie consent notices don’t work. But regulators haven’t done much about them, so at the end of 2019 Nouwens and his colleagues from Aarhus University in Denmark released Consent-O-Matic. It’s an open source browser extension (Chrome, Firefox, GitHub) that automatically fills in your preferences when cookie pop-ups appear.
“It actually submits a legally valid consent response to the website, so you can be quite confident (although not 100 percent) that the answer the extension gives for you is actually abided by,” Nouwens says. When cookie settings are sent to a website by Consent-O-Matic, a notification briefly appears in your browser to let you know the system has worked. “Out of principle we don’t collect any kind of usage information,” Nouwens adds.
Maldonado’s PrivacyCloud has created a similar open source extension: Consent Manager (Chrome, Firefox, GitHub). The system declines all cookies where it's possible to do so and flags if a website doesn’t respect your choices. “The tool looks for the most common cookie banner formats and removes them,” Maldonado says. NinjaCookie does a similar thing and rejects cookies by default. While it isn’t open source and has a premium tier, there are also extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge, and Opera. Both PrivacyCloud and NinjaCookie say they don’t collect data on your behavior.
The most popular cookie blocker is ‘I don’t care about cookies,’ which has been around since 2012. More than 500,000 people are using it on Chrome, but it won’t necessarily protect your privacy in the same way as the examples above. Its purpose is to simply get rid of the pop-ups and in most cases it blocks or hides cookie pop-ups, creator Daniel Kladnik says. “It does whatever is possible to get rid of cookie-related pop-ups, presuming that users protect themselves by using other tools, extensions, and browser settings,” Kladnik says.
Turn Off Cookies
Third-party cookies are dying. Apple and Firefox have largely killed off the tracking technology in their browsers, and when Google gets rid of them in Chrome next year they’ll be almost obsolete. That doesn’t mean it's not worth taking some action against the cookies websites use at a browser level right now.
Chrome’s settings let you block both first-party and third-party cookies. The former are the cookies created by the websites you visit—when you log in to Spotify, for instance, it will create a cookie that remembers it’s you using that browser. These first-party cookies are mostly useful, and you probably want to keep them turned on.
It’s third-party cookies that you want to block to stop yourself being tracked across the web. If you’re using Chrome on a desktop, head to Settings, search for “cookies” and, under Cookies and other site data, check the option to block third-party cookies. While you’re there also turn on Do Not Track—the setting doesn’t do much but indicates that you want more privacy experience online. If you’re using Chrome on Android, iOS, or iPadOS then you’ll want to open the app and navigate to Settings, then Privacy, and look for the option for blocking cookies in the Clear Browsing Data menu. (Google’s help page explains how to do this on each device).
Use a Privacy-First Web Browser
While third-party cookies are on the way out, there are other ways for websites and browsers to track you—such as browser fingerprinting. To tackle them you need to change the way you use the internet completely.
Brave, Ghostery, Tor, and DuckDuckGo are all privacy-first web browsers that take steps to stop you being tracked online. These browsers do a variety of things, from forcing the use of HTTPS to routing your browsing through various layers of encryption. They also don’t store logs of the websites you visit. To pick what browser is right for you it’s important to understand what features you need and balance those against the threats or challenges you might face online.
If you can’t ditch Chrome but want some extra privacy from cookie tracking, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger extension could be a big help. It stops advertisers and other third-party trackers from following everything you do online.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.