What Are Browser Cookies and How Do They Affect Your Privacy?

What Are Cookies Featured

Imagine you’re browsing your favorite website, and it seems to know you really well – remembers your preferences, suggests tailored content, and even greets you by your name. It’s not magic – it’s the work of little digital crumbs known as browser cookies. But what exactly are these cookies, and what do they mean for your privacy? Let’s dive in and explore the not-so-sweet side of these internet cookies and their impact on your online privacy.

What Are Browser Cookies?

Browser cookies, or HTTP cookies, are small pieces of data (text files) that a website asks your web browser to store on your computer or mobile device. These cookies allow websites to “remember” your actions or preferences over a period, so when you check back in, they can provide a personalized experience based on the information they had stored when you visited them the last time.

Types Of Browser Cookies

Chrome Brower
Image source: Pexels

Browser cookies are usually divided into three categories:

1. Session Cookies

As the term suggests, session cookies, also called temporary cookies, only last for one “session.” A session here refers to the time period from when you open a website till you close it.

Session cookies are most commonly used by e-commerce websites to keep track of the items in your cart. If it was not for these cookies, you would have to add items to your cart every time you refresh the website.

One unique feature of these cookies is that they are not stored on your device. Instead, they are stored on the website’s server for the time you are on the website and are instantly deleted after you leave.

You might be thinking, if a cookie is deleted after I leave the website, then how does it remember all my information and preferences? Well, session cookies don’t. The main purpose of these cookies is to track your movement within the website.

These cookies have a unique ID associated with them known as “Session ID.” Based on this ID, websites can track your movement within a website and resume your previous session from where you left or refreshed the page instead of starting a new session every time you open a new page.

2. Persistent Cookies

Ever noticed how you don’t have to re-enter your log-in credentials every time you open Facebook or other websites that require you to log in? That’s the work of persistent cookies.

Unlike session cookies that are flushed away after you exit the website, these cookies have a predetermined expiration date and remain operational even after you close your browser.

Once the expiration date is reached, the website either renews it automatically, deletes it, or asks your permission for renewal based on what option you choose from the consent pop-up.

Persistent cookies are a very important part of your Internet experience as they hold very important information like the language you choose on a website or the theme you select. Without these cookies, you will have to reselect these options every time you visit these websites.

3. Third-party Cookies

Third-party cookies are used by advertisers to better target their products. By collecting information about users and only targeting their ideal audience, they can not only save up a lot on advertising but also make more revenue.

Laptop With Web Browser
Image source: Pexels

This means that your data is being tracked as you use the website. Your spending habits, the things you like (and dislike), and the websites you visit frequently are all stored in these cookies.

These are non-essential in nature and help advertisers recommend relevant products to you. Turning this off could lead to you seeing ads for the new K70 Mini Pro Wireless Mechanical Gaming Keyword – or something else you’re totally not interested in.

How Browser Cookies Impact Your Privacy

1. Tracking and Behavioral Profiling

Cookies are frequently used to track your online behavior and create a profile of your interests and preferences. This information is typically shared with advertisers, analytics companies, or third-party websites. Tracking allows these entities to deliver targeted advertisements, customize the content, and make informed decisions based on your browsing habits.

Facebook On A Laptop
Image source: pexels

However, this can lead to annoying and buggy ads many times. Even if you search for a thing once or you open a website by mistake, browsing cooking may register this behavior and show you ads accordingly.

2. Cookie Syncing and Data Sharing

To make things even more complicated, companies can synchronize cookies or share the data they contain. This process, known as “cookie syncing” or “cookie matching,” enables different companies or advertising networks to share identifiers related to the same user, thereby merging their respective user data.

By doing this, these companies can create an even more detailed profile of you, far beyond what each could do individually. This extensive data collection and sharing can significantly compromise your privacy, allowing companies to make surprisingly accurate inferences about your offline life based on your online behavior.

3. Impact on Anonymity

While you might think that your online activities are anonymous, cookies can undermine this assumption.

The data cookies store, although may not contain explicit personal information like names or email addresses, still carries identifiable attributes. The cumulative trail of your online behavior, your interest areas, the time you spend on certain websites, your location, device information, IP address, and many other pieces of information can be gathered and tracked.

Hacker Hacking
Image source: Pexels

This multitude of gathered data points can be used to construct a “digital fingerprint” that, even in the absence of overtly identifiable information, can still accurately single you out from millions of other internet users.

For instance, a 2013 study conducted by researchers showed that 99.24% could be uniquely identified by combining the data of just 15 ‘anonymous’ demographic attributes, like gender, ZIP (or postal) code, or marital status. So, it’s safe to say that cookies have the potential to “de-anonymize” your identity.

4. Security Risks

While cookies do not inherently contain viruses or malware, they can present other significant security risks if misused, which in turn can have serious implications for your privacy.

Https Logo
Image source: Wikimedia

Here are the 5 most common security risks associated with cookies.

  1. Session Hijacking: An attacker might steal your session cookie to gain unauthorized access to your online accounts. This risk heightens on unsecured HTTP websites, where data is transmitted in clear text.
  2. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS): When injected into websites, malicious scripts could steal your cookies. Persistent cookies, in particular, increase the risk, as they’re stored even when the browser is closed.
  3. Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF): In such an attack, your authenticated cookie is manipulated, tricking a website into performing unintended actions on your behalf.
  4. Third-party Cookie Risks: These cookies are set by domains other than the one you’re visiting, tracking you across various websites. If hijacked, they can expose a wide range of your online activities.
  5. Insecure Cookie Handling: If a website fails to set secure attributes for a cookie, it becomes susceptible to interception and attacks.

To mitigate these risks, it’s essential to stay informed, adopt secure browsing practices, and use efficient privacy tools.

So, Are Browser Cookies Good or Bad?

There is no definitive answer to whether cookies are good or bad. They are more like a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, they’re really helpful. They remember all the little things about you, keep you logged in on websites, remember your shopping cart, and even the language you prefer. Basically, they make your online life way easier.

Good Or Bad
Image source: pixabay

On the flip side, the same nature of cookies to remember your activities and preferences can act against you. That’s because this info can end up with advertisers, leading to targeted ads. In some shady situations, this could even lead to privacy invasion.

So, are cookies good or bad? They’re both. Like a lot of things on the web, it all depends on how they’re used and, more importantly, how you manage them.

Best Practices for Protecting Your Privacy

Best Practices Gdpr
Image source: Pixabay
  1. Use Private or Incognito Browsing: Private or incognito browsing is a feature in most web browsers that prevents the storage of browsing history, cookies, and form data once the session ends. This can be a great way to browse without leaving much trace, but it’s not a total privacy solution as your activity can still be tracked by your ISP or employer.
  2. Regularly Clear Cookies: Regularly clearing your cookies helps prevent the buildup of data over time. By doing this, you reduce the amount of personal information available for misuse by potential trackers. The exact steps vary by browser but are generally located under the browser’s “Settings”, then “Privacy” or “History”.
  3. Manage Your Cookie Settings: Most browsers allow you to control how cookies are handled. You can block all cookies, accept all cookies, or choose to block only third-party cookies. While blocking all cookies might result in a less personalized browsing experience, it maximizes your privacy. You can also use Google Privacy Checkup to recheck all the privacy settings for your Google accounts and devices.
  4. Limit Third-Party Cookie Tracking: Many privacy issues arise from third-party cookies, which track your browsing habits across websites. These are often used for advertising purposes. Blocking third-party cookies in your browser settings is a strong step toward preventing privacy misuse.
  5. Use Privacy-Focused Browsers: Privacy-focused browsers like Brave, Tor, and Firefox focus more on user privacy than mainstream browsers. They automatically block trackers and third-party cookies, providing a more secure browsing experience out of the box. On your mobile phone, you can also use these privacy-focused browsers for Android and iOS.
  1. Keep Your Browsers Updated: Keeping your browser updated is essential as newer versions often include improved security and privacy features. An outdated browser may not provide the same level of protection against tracking or other privacy threats.
  2. Use Cookie Management Extensions: Several browser extensions can help you manage cookies effectively. Tools like “Cookie AutoDelete” (only for Chrome), “Privacy Badger”, and “Ghostery” offer control over cookie behavior, blocking tracking scripts, and automatically deleting cookies when tabs are closed.
  3. Enable Do Not Track: Although not all websites honor it, the “Do Not Track” option in most browsers sends a request to websites not to collect your browsing data for tracking your online activities. It’s worth enabling this option, even if it only works on some sites.
  4. Be Conscious of Permissions: When visiting a new website, consider the permissions it requests in the cookie consent popup. If a site asks to enable cookies for no apparent reason or doesn’t offer an option to opt out, it’s best to reconsider if using that site is necessary. You can also use a cookie consent-blocking extension to block all popups and reject all cookies automatically.

If Cookies Have So Many Risks Associated With Them, Why Are They Even Legal?

Yes, cookies can be risky, and honestly, not all the information they store is really required to create a good user experience. Yet, browser cookies play a more significant part in making sure the open web is accessible to everyone.

Person Using Internet 1
Image source: Pixabay

Today, you can open a billion articles on the internet about the wildest topics and educate yourself for free. You can basically access most of the Internet’s content for free. Behind the scenes, though, the operation of these sites costs money. There are content creators to pay, web hosting costs, and various other operational expenses. How do these sites continue to offer you free access to their content? The answer is through advertising revenue, and this is where cookies play the most important role.

Role of Cookies in Advertising

  1. Personalized Advertising: When you visit a site, cookies are used to track your activity. This could include articles you read, links you click, and how long you stay on the page. Over time, these cookies build a profile of your interests. Advertisers use this profile to show you ads that align with your interests. For example, if you read a lot of articles about travel, you might start seeing ads for airlines or hotel booking sites. These personalized ads are more likely to catch your interest and potentially lead to a purchase, making them more valuable to advertisers.
  2. Measuring Ad Performance: Advertisers want to know that their ads are being seen and clicked on. Cookies allow them to track these metrics. When you see an ad on a website, a cookie can record if you interact with it. This helps advertisers measure the effectiveness of their ads and adjust their strategies accordingly.

Because cookies make ads more effective and valuable, advertisers are willing to pay more for ad space on websites. This revenue allows websites to offer their content for free to users. So, when you read a free article on a news site, it’s largely funded by the advertising revenue that cookies help generate.

In essence, cookies play an indispensable role in the economic model of the internet. By enabling effective advertising, they ensure that content, from news articles to social media platforms, can be freely accessible to you. Without cookies, the landscape of the free internet as we know it would be significantly different.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if I don't accept cookies?

If you don’t accept cookies, a website will not be able to register your preferences. Additionally, it won’t be able to track your browser activities. As a result, you won’t get a very personalized browsing experience. Moreover, you may not get to access many websites that require you to accept at least some essential cookies. On the other side, this also means that no malicious elements can access your sensitive information.

How to delete cookies in Google Chrome?

To delete cookies in Google Chrome, simply navigate to the browser history on your mobile or computer. Then click “Clear browsing data -> Advanced”, and make sure to select the “Cookies and other site data” option. Lastly, click “Clear data” to get rid of all the cookies. Also, make sure that the “Time range” is set to “All time.”

What are zombie cookies?

Zombie cookies, or “supercookies,” are persistent tracking cookies that regenerate themselves after the user deletes them. They achieve this by storing cookie data in multiple locations on a user’s machine, such as in Flash cookies and HTML5 storage. This allows them to continue tracking a user’s online activity, even when the user believes they’ve removed all cookies, posing a substantial threat to privacy.

What is a cookie wall?

A “cookie wall” is how some websites make you agree to their tracking cookies before letting you use their site. You either accept all cookies, lose some privacy, or can’t use the site. This method is disputed because it may go against privacy laws like the GDPR, which stresses that people should knowingly and willingly agree to things that affect their privacy.

Why are Browser Cookies known as cookies?

Browser cookies are known as “cookies” because they resemble a popular baked treat. The term was coined by Lou Montulli, a programmer at Netscape Communications, in 1994. Montulli used the term “cookie” to describe the small packets of data sent by websites and stored on a user’s computer to remember information. The analogy was inspired by the idea of a fortune cookie, where a message is stored inside a small package. Like cookies store information for later consumption, browser cookies store data that websites can retrieve and use during subsequent visits.

Image credits: Two chocolate chip cookies on a laptop keyboard. by 123RF

Ojash Yadav
Ojash Yadav

Ojash has been writing about tech back since Symbian-based Nokia was the closest thing to a smartphone. He spends most of his time writing, researching, or ranting about Bitcoin. Ojash also contributes to other popular sites like MakeUseOf, SlashGear, and MacBookJournal.

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