What is a Tracking Cookie

Cookies make the web browsing experience personalized and persistent. Websites today use cookies to show relevant information to the user to maximize engagement. A big part of privacy debates over the past five years have centered around data collection and the failure of platforms to draw consent from the user before tracking them.

Tracking Cookies

As you’ll see in the blog how tracking cookies work, the dark side of advertisement will make you rethink storing such cookies.

How Does a Tracking Cookie Work?

A cookie is a small file that is stored in your web browser when you visit a website. The website needs to know about you to serve relevant information to you. But importantly, it needs this data to make the experience consistent.

The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is a stateless protocol. It means that the website has no way of remembering you if you revisit the website, load a different page, or refresh the current page. Without cookies, the website will forget your login information immediately as the next page loads. Cookies have been part of the web experience since 1995.

An e-commerce website will use cookies to see your likes and deliver product recommendations based on it. Your shopping cart will preserve the items you added even if you close the browser.

So, why are we discussing this piece of tech, which is quite clearly an essential part of the web experience? Because cookies can be used in a manner that becomes invasive to user privacy. Cookies are not the problem; it’s how advertisers use them that’s causing serious concerns for user privacy.

What are Third-Party Cookies?

Fundamentally, a cookie lets websites ‘track’ a user’s movement across the platform. But the tracking cookies that are part of this subject are third-party cookies and colloquially called as such.

When the U.S congress asked Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerburg how Facebook generates revenue, he replied, “we run ads”. Advertisement is a huge industry that thrives on data collection to serve the most relevant ads to maximize leads and conversions. Cookies are one of the ways advertisers use to gather data on a user’s interests. But, it’s not the only way to gather data, which is what people usually get wrong.

However, tracking cookies has been the subject of controversy more than other tracking methods like a pixel and tags.

First-party cookies are saved on the web browser by the website you visit. On the other hand, third-party cookies get saved by websites that are running third-party code. Google Adsense, for example, is an ad program that publishers can use to earn money by displaying ads to visitors. After installing the code on the website, ad management is handled by Google.

If you visit website A that is running Google’s ad program, it will recognize you through its cookies if you visit website B running the same program. It is known as cross-site tracking. One of the common examples is Facebook’s like-share button that you see on several websites. Technically, if you are visiting a website, it cannot use Facebook’s cookies because they don’t belong to it. But, having the social media sharing options on the website triggers a request to the Facebook servers, allowing Facebook to know what website you are currently on.

The like and share options are tied to Facebook profile activity. It will let Facebook know about your cross-site activities.

How to Delete Tracking Cookies

Cookies are stored in your web browser, and you can easily delete them by going into your web browser’s setting. Use the search option to look up the cookies option in Firefox and Chrome. You can delete all cookies, delete them individually, or put exemptions for domains of your choice.

However, deleting first-party cookies is not recommended. They are essential for providing a seamless and persistent experience. Your login information, language preferences, and other settings are all saved in cookies.

What is Do Not Track?

The concerns surrounding user privacy and data collection prompted lawmakers to take swift action. The European Union formed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) policy to protect the privacy of its citizens. It sets a standard for all organizations that deal with user data.

The GDPR dictates that the user has a right to privacy, and businesses must inform users about how much data they collect and how they collect it. The user must have the choice to opt-out of such data collection and tracking. GDPR was the impetus that paved the way for the Do Not Track initiative that allows users to opt-out of tracking. Web browsers like Mozilla Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome, Brave include this feature that signals your consent or lack of it to advertisers.

Similarly, the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) makes it mandatory for businesses to be open about their data collection practices. It restricts businesses from collecting more data than consented to by the user, and it must notify the user if they intend to use that information for any other purpose.

Apple’s iOS 14.5 update introduced a new feature that prompts the user to allow or deny an app to track. The move drew a lot of heat from Facebook and advertisers when it was announced last year. You can learn more about this update in our blog here.

Conclusion

We must stress that cookies are not inherently bad. They are an essential component of the web experience. The way they are being utilized for cross-site tracking has drawn criticism for the right reasons. As advocates of privacy, regulations like GDPR are a step in the right direction for the protection of user privacy.

Like cookies, advertisements are not evil. It’s the practice of data collection without consent for that purpose that needs to be repealed.

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