Cookies, private browsing, Apple Notes

Bob's Tech Talk

Q. When I am online, I frequently see a message that asks me to accept cookies. What are cookies?

A. A cookie is a small bit of data that a website stores on your computer. The name itself dates back to the earliest days of the web, when names were chosen by programmers.

The original job of a cookie was to make web surfing easier. Unfortunately, they have become one of the primary ways that you are tracked online. Tracking people online is a big business. Surveillance is nearly invisible to users, but it can have a profound impact on individuals and society in general.

To give you an idea of scale, consider that folks who spend time researching trackers observed a test device on which Google Chrome collected nearly 11,000 cookies in a single week. Not all of those cookies were the result of the “accept cookies” messages you see on many websites. Cookies can be set without your explicit permission.

There is no simple solution for users to avoid tracking. The best you can do is choose a web browser that has an emphasis on personal privacy. As of this writing, most users should use Firefox, which is a free download from Users of Apple products should stick with Apple’s Safari, which is pre-installed on web capable devices.

Q. My web browser has the option to open a “Private Window.” Are private windows really private?

A. Not really, but the complete answer is more complicated than yes or no.

All modern web browsers feature some kind of private browsing capability. Private Window and Incognito Window are two common names for this functionality, but there are probably at least a dozen more. There are minor differences, but private browsing typically means private relative to other users of the same device. It is not private from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or the network of services that record you as you surf the web.

This means that when you turn on a private mode, the web history stops recording. Anyone you share the computer with would not stumble across any of the sites you visited in private mode.

But that is about the limit of what private browsing accomplishes. Your ISP knows which sites you visit and for how long. So does software that employers or institutions use to track their equipment. This kind of software is not always installed on the computer, it may be part of the network the computer uses to access the Internet.

Private browsing is a user convenience, and that’s all. There are tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that can make tracking difficult. However, the bottom line is that truly anonymous browsing is nearly impossible.

Q. I use Apple’s Notes app. Over time the number of notes has grown into a disorganized jumble. Is there an app to help me get organized?

A. I will let you in on a secret: Apple Notes is a powerhouse organization tool. If you started using it a few years ago, you may not be aware of how powerful it has become in recent versions.

First, make sure you’re using the latest version of iOS, which can be checked in Settings -> General -> Software Update. The features I am about to highlight were added in the last couple of years, so your Notes app may differ on any version of iOS less than 17.

Notes can be sorted into folders. Open the sidebar and create a folder, then manually drag and drop notes into their appropriate folder.

Notes also support hashtags. Just type something like #birthdays into any note, and the hashtag will appear in the left sidebar as an instant search.

Hashtags are one example of metadata, or information about the note itself. Smart folders can be created based on metadata. For example, you can create a smart folder to group together all the notes created in the last month that also include the hashtag #dinner_menu.

A feature that makes Notes work a bit like a personal Wikipedia are links. You can add links from almost anywhere, including other notes.

To explore these and other features, search YouTube for “Apple Notes Tutorial” to find dozens of helpful examples.

Wander the Web

Here are my picks for worthwhile browsing this month:

Browser Security Report

This site will show you a detailed explanation of what your browser reveals about you.

Virtual Tours

Yorescape is a service that provides virtual tours of museums and other interesting places. Works on everything from smartphones to VR headsets.

Play Ancient Games Online

Recover from flying over Ancient Rome by playing a quick game of XII Scripta like a Roman.

Bob has been writing about technology for over three decades. He can be contacted at