First-Party Cookies

First-party cookies are set by the website in the URL bar at the top of the page.

From the early days of the internet, it became obvious that it would be advantageous for websites to be able to store information on a computer for future access. For example, a website that displays weather information could ask the user for a zip code, and then store it in a cookie. The next time the user visited the website, weather information would automatically load for that zip code, without the user having to enter it again.

Like everything else on the web, clever people figured out all types of ways to abuse cookies to do things that users would not approve of if they knew they were happening. For example, a website can set a cookie with a unique serial number on a device. Then, every time a user visits the website on that device, it can be linked to a unique profile the server maintains for that serial number, even if the device connects from different IP addresses.

Almost all websites with logins require first-party cookies to be enabled for a user to log in. That is how they make sure it is still you as you move from page to page on the site, and is, in my opinion, one of the few legitimate uses for cookies.

If first-party cookies are enabled but JavaScript is disabled, the privacy icon will be yellow as a warning.

Third-Party Cookies

Third-party cookies are set by portions of a website that are loaded from servers different from the URL at the top of the page. For example, most website that have advertisements load them from a third-party ad broker, like Google’s Ad Sense. Every time the website loads, it requests the ad broker to display an ad. The ad broker analyzes any information they may have about the user, looks at the current rate advertisers are willing to pay for their ads, and selects the one to display. The section of the website that displays the ads is loaded from the third-party broker’s server instead of the main server.

Because most of the advertisements on the internet are processed by only a few brokers, it didn’t take long for them to realize that they could set a tracking cookie on the user’s device and know every place that user goes. Every time an ad loads from a broker, the first thing it does it check to see if if the device already has a unique serial number in a tracking cookie. If it does, it looks up the profile for that serial number and makes a note of the new site. This is why a user can do a search on one website for a product they typically don’t look for, like walnuts, and then suddenly start seeing advertisements for walnuts on every website they visit.

In addition to ad brokers, social media sites discovered they could get in on the action. A few years ago, the major social media sites like Facebook and Twitter convinced a large number of websites that it would be in their best interest to place little social media icons on their pages. These are not just images. They contain embedded code that links back to the social media site, and, among other things, loads a third-party cookie on the device. These cookies are placed even if the user does not have an account with the social media platform. Over time, companies like Facebook (which also runs an ad network) have built up quite a large number of detailed profiles about people who have never even created an account on their site.

There is no good reason to ever enable third-party cookies. On devices with Android KitKat or older (version <= 4.4.4 or API <= 20), WebView does not differentiate between first-party and third-party cookies. Thus, enabling first-party cookies will also enable third-party cookies.

DOM Storage

Document Object Model storage, also known as web storage, is like cookies on steroids. Whereas the maximum combined storage size for all cookies from a single URL is 4 kilobytes, DOM storage can hold megabytes per site. Because DOM storage uses JavaScript to read and write data, it cannot be enabled unless JavaScript is also enabled.

Form Data

Form data contains information typed into web forms, like user names, addresses, phone numbers, etc., and lists them in a drop-down box on future visits. Unlike the other forms of local storage, form data is not sent to the web server without specific user interaction. Beginning in Android Oreo (8.0), WebView’s form data was replaced by the Autofill service. As such, controls for form data no longer appear on newer Android devices.