Cookies. Those little bits of data that make our online experiences smoother but also enable extensive tracking of our activity. While managing cookies is straightforward on a desktop browser, mobile takes cookie usage to a new level. This guide from a cybersecurity professional will explain everything you need to know about cookies on phones, plus tips to limit mobile cookie tracking and protect your privacy.
What Are Cookies, Anyway?
First, let‘s cover the cookie basics. A cookie is a small text file stored on your device when you visit certain websites. Cookies allow sites to remember your preferences, items, logins, and more to improve your experience.
First party cookies come directly from the site domain, like nytimes.com. Third-party cookies come from advertisers, analytics services, social media, and other external sources embedded on a site. It‘s those third-party cookies that are problematic from a privacy perspective.
The Mobile Cookie Conundrum
On desktop browsers, managing cookies is fairly straightforward—you can block some or all of them. But mobile devices have added a whole new layer of complexity:
- Apps – In addition to mobile browsers, the apps on your phone also install their own cookies and trackers.
- Walled gardens – Mobile operating systems silo cookies, treating those from the browser separately from those in apps.
- New tracking methods – Techniques like IDFA on iOS and AAID on Android enable extensive user tracking and profiling across apps.
- Cross-device – Vendors can now connect your activity across phones, tablets, computers, and more to build detailed user profiles.
- Hyper-targeting – Cookies allow ads to be tailored to your interests both within apps and on the mobile web. Advertisers pay more for this level of precision.
By the Numbers: Mobile Cookies & Tracking
Mobile cookies and other techniques have vastly expanded user tracking and targeting compared to desktop. Some key stats:
- 97% of Android apps share data with third parties like Google and Facebook, per a 2022 AppCensus study.
- Over 5,400 ad trackers were found on average in top free children‘s apps according to an International Digital Accountability Council report.
- 78% of iPhone apps include third-party trackers like Google Analytics and Facebook Graph according to a LockdownPrivacy audit.
- CCPA opt-outs only reduced tracking by 4% on average, per a 2022 study testing Google and Facebook opt-out efficacy on Android apps.
This table summarizes how prevalent tracking is on mobile:
|Platform||Avg. Third-Party Trackers per App||Tracking Methods|
|Android||16||Cookies, advertising ID, device fingerprints|
|iOS||11||Cookies, IDFA, device fingerprints|
Managing Browser Cookies on Mobile
Let‘s start with limiting browser-based cookie tracking on your phone. The major mobile browsers like Chrome, Safari, and Firefox provide settings to clear or block some or all cookies:
- Tap Menu > Settings > Site Settings > Cookies
- Tap Block third-party cookies
- Go to Settings > Safari > Block All Cookies
- Tap Menu > Settings > Privacy & Security > Cookies
- Enable Block cookies and site data
Blocking third-party cookies limits tracking by advertisers and analytics services while allowing essential first-party cookies. You‘ll have to re-login to sites more often as persistent cookies are cleared.
Controlling Cookies in Apps
Blocking mobile browser cookies is just one piece of the puzzle. All those apps on your phone – Facebook, Yelp, even calculator apps – install their own cookies for tracking and ads.
Apple provides some control via Limit Ad Tracking (Settings > Privacy > Advertising), but this doesn‘t address other third-party cookies. Android users can opt out of personalized ads system-wide.
For full protection, use a VPN or ad blocker that filters traffic across your entire phone. Top choices include:
- Blokada – Popular free Android ad blocker able to block mobile trackers. Easy one-tap setup.
- Lockdown Privacy – For iPhones, Lockdown blocks trackers across apps using custom filters.
- AdGuard – Works across iOS and Android to block advertising cookies and trackers.
- ExpressVPN – This premium VPN service can block various cookies and trackers via its Threat Manager feature.
What Does the Future Hold for Mobile Cookies?
Apple and Google understand consumer frustration around mobile tracking and have initiatives in the works:
- Google Privacy Sandbox – Will introduce new targeted advertising tools to eventually replace cookies on Android. Details remain unclear.
- Intelligent Tracking Prevention – Apple‘s ITP already blocks some third-party cookies by default in Safari. Expect Apple to continue tightening protections.
Though early days, we can expect to see cookies play a lesser role in future mobile targeted advertising efforts. "Despite the limitations of Apple’s and Google‘s approaches, they are a sign of progress in protecting privacy on mobile devices," says Mark Wilson, a cybersecurity expert. "But users should continue being proactive about limiting cookie tracking until robust, ethical alternatives are fully implemented."
Take Control of Your Mobile Privacy
Between apps and mobile browsers, cookie tracking on phones is pervasive yet controllable if you take action. Here are my top tips as an online privacy pro:
- Audit your apps using a tool like Lockdown Privacy to see which share data with third parties unnecessarily. Remove or limit permissions for those apps.
- Disable personalized/targeted ads on your Android or iOS device. This limits ad tracking IDs.
- Use a password manager app to control access to accounts without relying on persistent login cookies.
- Opt out of location tracking, email lists, and sharing options with marketing companies to limit profile-building.
- Research VPNs and ad blockers to find one that aligns with your budget and privacy priorities. Test them out!
- Keep phones and apps updated to take advantage of the latest privacy protections.
What steps will you take today to manage cookies and tracking on your mobile device? Protecting our privacy does not mean abandoning helpful personalization. We can pragmatically balance utility and user control as mobile technology continues evolving.