Cookies are embedded in almost every corner of the internet today. While they provide helpful functionality, they also enable extensive tracking of users’ online activity, often without consent. This raises major concerns about data privacy. This in-depth guide will examine what they are, the different types, the breadth of data collected, the specific ways they impact privacy, potential risks, and actionable steps users can take to limit cookie tracking and protect their information.
Table of Contents
What Are Cookies and How Do They Work?
It is a small text file, ranging from a few bytes to a few kilobytes, stored on a user’s electronic device when they visit a website. It enables websites to track various kinds of information about users’ visits and activities.
There are a couple of different types:
- Session – These are temporary and are erased when the user closes their browser at the end of a session. They might track things like items added to a shopping cart.
- Persistent – These remain on a user’s device for a long, specified period of time or until they are manually deleted. They are used to track preferences and behavior across multiple sessions.
- First-party – These are set by the website domain the user visits directly. For example, if you visit example.com, the cookies will be from example.com.
- Third-party – These are set by other domains outside the visited site, often used for advertising and analytics. For example, example.com might allow doubleclick.net to set a cookie unknown to the user.
When a user first visits a website, before any page content is displayed, the site instructs the user’s browser to store its cookie on their device. The browser sends the cookie data back to the website every subsequent visit. Using the unique ID, the site can identify repeat visitors and track their activities over multiple sessions.
As we’ll explore in the next section, Cookies can track many user behaviors and preferences.
Data Collected Through It
Due to their ability to persistently track users across sites and over long periods of time, cookies allow for the collection of an often shocking breadth of data, including:
- Specific pages you have visited on every site you have been to
- Any account info entered, like usernames, passwords, and contact info
- Every search term you’ve searched for on a search engine
- Products or items you have viewed or added to a shopping cart
- Detailed histories of online purchases and transactions
- Ads that you have been shown or clicked on across the web
- Videos and media you have watched and your interactions
- Precise geolocation data in some cases
- Files you have downloaded and opened on your device
- Social media activity, including posts liked, profiles clicked, etc.
In addition, cookies record all kinds of device data like operating system, browser type, screen resolution, language preferences, and precise IP address.
Advanced tracking cookies can even record every mouse movement and user’s scroll action on a site. When aggregated over months and years, this creates astonishingly complete user profiles and insights into behavior.
How It Impacts Data Privacy
The sophisticated tracking of users’ web activity, devices, and personal data has major implications for data privacy:
- Detailed browsing histories – Cookies enable sites to analyze every site visited and seen over the years to infer the users’ interests, political leanings, and psychological traits.
- Targeted advertising – Based on the rich behavioral profiles provided by cookies, advertisers can target users with pinpoint precision across any site on the web.
- Data selling – Web companies often sell or share aggregated cookie data with third parties for marketing, analytics, or other purposes without the user’s knowledge or consent.
- Lack of transparency – Most users are unaware of the full extent of cookie tracking and how the data is used, shared, and retained over time.
- De-anonymization – Cookie data from multiple sources can often be tied together to identify specific individuals by name.
Risks of Cookie Tracking
- Manipulation – Granular psychological profiles inferred from web activity can be used to micro-target and manipulate users through content, ads, or social media.
- Discrimination – Ad platforms can profile sensitive user attributes like race, health, or sexuality based on sites visited, enabling advertisers to discriminate with targeted ads.
- Financial fraud – Malicious actors can track purchase histories through cookies to steal credit card numbers or commit other identity theft.
How to Limit It
While cookies provide website functionality, users should take action to limit unnecessary tracking and protect their privacy:
- Adjust browser settings to clear cookies regularly or set strong cookie permissions.
- Use private browsing modes like Incognito mode in Chrome.
- Install browser extensions like Privacy Badger that block trackers.
- Opt out of data collection and targeted advertising through industry programs.
- Push for stronger privacy regulations to curb exploitative uses of cookie data.
Being informed and proactive is key, as most web activity today involves cookies and tracking by default.
Cookies provide helpful website features but enable an extraordinary level of tracking of users’ online activities, often without transparency or meaningful consent. The privacy implications are far-reaching, from targeted advertising to state surveillance. Users should aim to limit unnecessary cookie tracking through technical tools and advocacy to protect their data better. Keep updated with the latest news on the cybersecurity world in the T3 Blog.