Hey there! If you‘re wondering whether tracking cookies are following you around the internet, you‘ve come to the right place. I‘m going to shed some light on what exactly tracking cookies are, what data they gather about you, and most importantly – how you can stop them from tracking your every move online.
What Are Tracking Cookies?
You‘re probably familiar with cookies – those small data files websites place on your device to remember who you are. Cookies can be helpful, like keeping you logged into a site or saving your preferences.
But some cookies have a more sinister purpose – tracking your activities across multiple sites. These are known as third-party or tracking cookies.
Here‘s an example of how tracking cookies work:
- You visit Website A. It has a Facebook Like button.
- That Like button causes your browser to contact Facebook‘s server to load the button.
- Facebook‘s server sends back a tracking cookie and drops it on your device.
- Later you visit Website B which also has a Facebook Like button.
- The cookie left earlier allows Facebook to identify you‘re the same person.
So those innocuous looking Like buttons act as tracking beacons used by Facebook to follow you around the web!
This technique is used extensively by tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter to track user activity across websites for advertising purposes.
Some common sources of tracking cookies include:
- Advertising networks like Google Ads, Taboola, Outbrain
- Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter
- Analytics services like Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics
- Data aggregation companies like Nielsen, comScore
So visiting any website that displays third-party content – ads, social widgets, web trackers – allows dozens of companies to place tracking cookies on your device to monitor your online activities.
What Data Do Tracking Cookies Collect?
The purpose of tracking cookies is to record details about your browsing behavior in order to build a profile of your interests and activities. Here are some examples of data tracking cookies can collect:
Your browsing history
Tracking cookies record which websites and pages you visit to categorize your interests based on the type of content viewed. For instance, if you visit sites related to yoga regularly, you may be profiled as a fitness enthusiast.
Your search queries
The search terms you enter on Google, YouTube and other sites provide insights into your current needs and intentions. Tracking cookies capture your search queries to better understand what you‘re looking for online.
Products viewed or purchased
Retail tracking cookies record product pages you view or add to cart to deliver targeted promotions. For example, looking at running shoes on an ecommerce site may cause shoe ads to chase you around afterwards.
Cookies track your clicks, taps, and other interactions with webpages to analyze how you engage with websites. This "clickstream data" helps improve site design and user experience.
Your IP address reveals the city or country you‘re located in. Tracking cookies use this geolocation data to serve ads and content targeted to your area.
Cookies can determine your device type (desktop, tablet, phone), operating system (Windows, iOS, Android), browser name and version, screen resolution and more. These technical fingerprints help track you across devices.
Based on your browsing history and activity patterns, companies draw inferences about your gender, age bracket, income level and other demographics. These get added to your profile.
Individually cookies only record limited data, but hundreds of trackers combined can create alarmingly detailed dossiers spanning your interests, habits, purchases, location, demographics and more.
How Much Are You Tracked Online?
To understand the scale of tracking today, let‘s look at some stats:
- The average website has over 100 third-party cookies, according to Cookiebot.
- Ghostery found that over 2,000 companies are trying to track users‘ web activity.
- Popular sites like washingtonpost.com and weather.com contain over 80 trackers, states Mozilla.
- A study by Princeton found that top sites have an average of 64 third-party trackers, with news sites averaging over 120 trackers.
- Facebook tracks users across 98% of websites, making it the biggest tracker identified by DuckDuckGo.
- 78% of global website traffic is considered trackable, per an Adobe Analytics study.
These statistics reveal how pervasive third-party tracking has become on today‘s web. Wherever you go online, dozens if not hundreds of companies are lurking in the background to monitor your activities through tracking cookies.
So how does this silent surveillance threaten your privacy?
How Tracking Cookies Invade Your Privacy
Third-party cookies essentially follow you around the web, recording your activities without consent to build intrusive digital dossiers. Here are some of the ways tracking cookies infringe on your privacy:
You‘re profiled without your permission
Tracking cookies profile your interests, habits, purchases and demographics without asking for your explicit consent. This is done through advanced analytics to put users into different categories for ad targeting.
Your data is combined across sites and devices
Cookies placed by the same tracker across different sites and devices you use are aggregated to generate a holistic view of your online identity and activities.
For instance, Facebook combines its tracking data from Instagram, Facebook.com and Facebook apps to better understand each user.
Your browsing history can be deanonymized
While tracking cookies themselves don‘t contain directly identifiable information, your cookie data can often be tied to your real identity by combining it with other data sources like voter records, purchased marketing lists, social media profiles, loyalty programs etc.
For instance, New York Times was able to deanonymize AOL search data by cross-referencing it with phonebook listings.
More tracking means more manipulation
The highly detailed profiles generated by tracking cookies allow advertisers to really fine tune their messaging and psychologically manipulate users into clicking on ads.
Tracking data risks exposure in data breaches
The companies that collect your tracking cookie data store it on their servers. Data leaks at such companies can expose this sensitive information to hackers, as happened with Facebook‘s Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Lack of regulation around tracking
Unlike sensitive financial data, which is highly regulated, there are few rules around collection of personal browsing data. This allows trackers to lurk freely unless users take action to block them.
So while tracking cookies themselves are harmless text files, unfettered third-party tracking at scale can threaten user privacy in multiple ways.
How You‘re Tracked After Clearing Cookies
You might assume clearing your cookies removes all tracking. Unfortunately, it‘s not that simple. Sophisticated trackers use advanced techniques to continue following you even after you purge cookies:
This persistent tracker stashes your cookie data in multiple storage mechanisms like LocalStorage, Flash cookies, raw web storage etc. Clearing cookies deletes just one copy while the rest remain intact.
Trackers share cookie IDs with each other through backend coordination to recreate deleted cookies. So one tracker can restore another‘s tracking profile on you.
Your browser configuration like language, time zone, fonts installed forms a unique fingerprint. Trackers can identify you by fingerprinting even after cookie deletion.
Some trackers intentionally respawn deleted cookies with the same ID, essentially bringing cookies back from the dead!
These tracking techniques evolved as workarounds once users started deleting cookies for privacy. They aim to maintain long-term continuity in tracking users.
How to Stop Tracking Cookies From Following You
Now that you know how stealthy and prevalent web tracking is, you‘re ready to take some steps to tame tracking cookies! Here are some effective techniques:
Regularly clear cookies in your browser
As a general privacy measure, clear your browser cookies frequently, at least once a month. All major browsers like Chrome, Firefox and Safari provide easy options to wipe cookies. Doing this removes most tracking cookies, though some advanced ones will recover.
Disable third-party cookies
For a more selective approach, you can block just third-party cookies instead of nuking all cookies. This still allows helpful first-party cookies needed by websites, while preventing tracking across sites.
Chrome, Firefox, Safari and other browsers offer settings to disable third-party cookies specifically. Try this moderate approach as a good balance.
Use a privacy-focused browser
Browsers like Firefox, Brave and DuckDuckGo come with built-in protection against tracking cookies and fingerprinting. They automatically block known tracker domains, isolate cookies, and take other measures to reduce your exposure to third-party tracking.
Install an ad/tracker blocker
Extensions like uBlock Origin, Ghostery and Privacy Badger effectively block cookies from advertising, analytics, social media and other tracking domains. Enable the relevant filters in these tools to stop many third-party cookies from loading.
Use a VPN
A trusted VPN routes all your traffic through an encrypted tunnel, hiding your real IP address and location from trackers. This prevents them from correlating your browsing activities across sites. VPNs also allow changing your virtual location.
Access websites through isolation
Tools like WEBGAP allow accessing any website remotely through their servers. So even if a site drops cookies on you, they remain isolated on remote browsers instead of touching your actual device. This provides robust protection without any client-side installs.
Block cookies from specific sites
For granular control, you can also block cookies on a site-by-site basis using browser extensions like Cookies Off. This allows blocking notorious third-party trackers while permitting helpful cookies from websites you trust.
Leverage multiple solutions together
No single solution blocks every tracker. So combine approaches like tracker-blocking browsers, VPNs, cookie deletion and isolating your browsing for maximum privacy. Together these complementary techniques significantly minimize tracking cookies.
While completely eliminating web tracking is impossible today, intelligently using the right tools allows you to take control of your privacy. Cookie tracking has spiraled out of control, but we as users aren‘t helpless against its overreach.
So monitor your cookie jar closely, and rest assured that tracking cookies don‘t have to stalk your every move online!
Let me know if you have any other concerns about internet privacy or questions about how I can help. Enjoy a less cookie-cluttered web!