Are Internet Cookies Bad for Privacy?

April 14, 2020 2:41 pm

Are cookies bad? Are website owners sneaking away with your information and selling it for a profit? Can they read your browsing history or sneak a pic at those files on your hard drive?

Are Internet Cookies Bad for Privacy?

With online crime expected to reach $6 trillion next year, it’s no surprise you’re worried someone might pilfer your private information. But is that even possible with cookies? When you’re ready to finally discover the hidden answers to your cookie question and determine whether they’re good or evil, read on.

What Are Internet Cookies?

Have you noticed the popup screens that appear on almost every website you visit? They usually say something like, “We use cookies to provide essential services…,” or “We use cookies to better your experience….” If these statements confuse you, then you’re probably like most folks and prefer your cookies fresh out of the oven with a glass of cold milk.

Webmasters, coders, and digital marketers, on the other hand, thrive on internet cookies.

Cookies are just small files stored on your digital device. The main purpose of cookies is to identify you to web servers and prepare customized web pages for you. They come in many forms and functions, as you’ll discover in the sections below.

Cookie Types

There’s more than one type of cookie. Each is used for a specific purpose.

Session Cookies

A session cookie, also known as a transient cookie, is stored in temporary memory on your hard drive while you visit a particular website. It’s deleted when you close your browser.

Session cookies don’t collect information from your computer. They store non-personal information in the form of session identifications.

Persistent Cookies

A permanent cookie, also known as a stored cookie, is stored on your hard drive until you delete it, or it expires. An expiration date is integrated with its code. They collect identifying information, like user preferences for a website or web surfing behavior.

They come in two flavors:

Authentication Cookies: They’re used to track whether a user has logged in. If so, what name has the user given? They also streamline the login code by auto-filling login information, so users don’t need to remember it.

Tracking Cookies: They’re used to track a visitor over time, during multiple visits to the same site. Amazon is a great example. You’ll notice that when you jump on a session with Amazon, it reminds you of products you browsed during your most recent sessions.

The information it saves gives it the ability to suggest other items you might like. It uses complex algorithms on information gathered from billions of users to find patterns. For instance, they know that users who buy gaming laptops and browse Manga will probably like the show Firefly.

What Information Do Cookies Store?

Cookies keep information they obtain in a string of text within a small file on your digital device. Some sites use cookies to store personal information about you, but that can only happen if you give them your personal information. Legitimate sites encrypt the information on your cookies to keep it safe.

They can only store information relevant to 6 types of parameters:

  • Cookie name
  • Cookie value
  • Cookie expiration date
  • The path for which the cookie is valid (a URL)
  • The domain for which the cookie is valid (a domain name)
  • Whether it needs a secure connection (SSL or no SSL)

Cookies can’t snoop on your hard drive. They can only monitor and record your web behavior and store the information you’ve given out online.

Third-Party Cookies

Now we’re getting into cookies that can cause more trouble. Most cookies are generated by the website on which the user is currently surfing. Third-party cookies, on the other hand, are generated by sites different from the one on which the user is currently surfing.

They’re usually linked to a digital ad on that page, hanging out, waiting to spot users. For instance, if you visit a page with 7 different ads, they may generate 7 different cookies on your laptop. The worst part is that you never clicked on, or in any way condoned the cookie downloads.

These sneaky little guys help marketers and webmasters track your browsing history across the web. The cookies use a simple JavaScript code to anonymously follow you from site to site. All the while, the cookies record which sites you visit.

Later, that code is used to determine whether you’re a good candidate for certain kinds of digital ads. If the sites you’ve been visiting match a certain profile, then digital ads matching that profile will start popping up on sites you visit across the web.

The whole process is commonly referred to as pixel retargeting. Marketers love it because they can send ads only to users who are likely to buy, so they save a vast amount on their ad spend.

Zombie cookies do something similar, though they’re hidden in Adobe Flash storage bins. They’re notoriously difficult to get rid of.

Are Cookies Bad?

Are internet cookies bad? Well, as with every other kind of code, hackers have their hand in cookies too. Those types of code are called spyware or adware cookies.

Fortunately, modern antivirus programs easily track down and destroy these little monsters. If they didn’t, the bad cookies would track your behavior, much like pixel retargeting cookies. The difference is your information would then be sold to dubious companies to do with as they pleased.

Allowing or Removing Cookies

Should you let cookies in? As with other types of code, you must weigh the pros and cons of cookies. 95% of cookies help you.

Logins are easier and website content is more relevant. Pixel retargeting cookies are obnoxious but not malicious. In some cases, they’re even helpful.

If you use modern antivirus software, it destroys malicious cookies each time it scans your hard drive. Nowadays, it’s rare if they even make it to your hard drive. Even when they do, they can only track your online behavior, not read your sensitive information.

Learn how to enable cookies on your own devices. Then you can choose which types of cookies you will enable.

It’s not an all-or-nothing decision. It’s more like a sliding scale.

What’s Next?

So, are cookies bad? The answer is sort of. In some cases, they’re less than stellar while in others, they can be a boon.

The key is to know who’s behind the cookies and what they plan to do with your information. When you know that, you can decide whether they’re right for you. If you found these sections helpful, take 3 minutes to check out our substantial library full of answers to other digital mysteries.