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Tracking cookies: What are tracking cookies and how do they work?

Tracking cookies: What are tracking cookies and how do they work?

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If you use browsers such as Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Microsoft edge on a daily basis, your devices are probably filled with cookies. Cookies are small text files containing data about you and your online browsing activity that websites save to your browser.

For instance, when you visit your favourite weather site, a cookie might remember that you searched for the temperatures in Mumbai last week. So, when you log back on, the site will show "Mumbai" as a recommended city for your next weather search, saving you some time.

Or maybe you log onto an online store. A cookie will remember your log-in information so that you won’t have to retype it or enter the credentials each time you want to buy new shoes. Cookies can also be helpful in getting similar product recommendations to your preference when visiting the site again.

There are two main types of cookies, first-party and third-party. First-party cookies are saved by the websites you initially visit. On the other hand, Third-party cookies originate from sites that you aren't currently on. It’s these third-party cookies that are also known as tracking cookies because they can track you and your online activities as you roam the internet.

Tracking cookies are the ones that send targeted ads to websites that you visit, to persuade you to return to sites you visited in the past, buy products from advertisers that you've clicked on before, or from entirely new sites that forward ads for marketing purposes. But are they dangerous? It all depends on how much you value your privacy when browsing the web.

How do tracking cookies work?

As mentioned before, tracking cookies are primarily used for marketing and advertising purposes. The ultimate goal is to increase the odds that users will purchase their products or services.

Say you’re about to take a road trip to the mountains. First, you might start searching the websites of attractions, restaurants, and hotels around your destination. You may even log onto those sites to get more information about the area.

Then, later when you surf onto your favourite news sites, entertainment blogs, and social media sites, you might start getting ads from the same hotels and attractions. This is how third-party tracking cookies work: The sites you visit save them on your browser, and send targeted ads to you as you navigate the web.

What information do tracking cookies store?

Because tracking cookies are used mainly by companies that want to market their products or services, they mostly store information about your online browsing activity to send reliable ads according to your previous choices.

These types of cookies store a list of sites you've visited and track what pages you looked at when you’re on the sites. They also store any products you might have clicked on or purchases that you've made before. Again, the major goal is to gather any information that makes it easier for companies to sell you their goods and services.

Tracking cookies also track your IP address and your geographic location. This last bit of information is vital for marketers that might want to show you ads for upcoming concerts or events in your area, products convenient for your location, tickets for your local cricket or football teams, or sales taking place at stores near you.

Are tracking cookies dangerous?

Tracking cookies gather plenty of information about you. But does this make them dangerous? That largely depends on what you consider unsafe or risky.

These cookies won’t necessarily damage your devices and probably won’t place malware or adware on them, that is, unless third-party sites are malicious or created by cybercriminals. So in that respect, they are safe. But suppose you don’t want companies, government bodies, social media sites, or any other organizations tracking your browsing activity. In that case, you might consider tracking cookies to be a violation of your privacy.

How to prevent tracking cookies

Fortunately, if you don’t like the idea of cookies tracking your online activity, you can disable them.

Typically, any website you visit will store at least one cookie, a first-party cookie, on your browser, which remembers your basic activity on the site. When you visit a site for the first time, it will also give you the option to limit cookie activity. In addition, some sites will allow you to disable all third-party cookies. If you want to prevent companies and social media sites from spying on your browsing activities, select this option when sites give you a choice.

You can also set up your browser so that it will automatically disable third-party tracking cookies. The directions to do this can differ depending on the browser you are using. 

Microsoft Edge: To disable third-party cookies on Microsoft Edge, click the gear icon in the upper-right-hand corner. Select the “Settings” option in the next menu. Then, click “View Advanced Settings.” Find the “Cookies” heading in this menu and select “Block only third-party cookies.”

Chrome: Click the three dots in the upper right-hand corner of the browser. Next, click “Settings.” In this menu, click “Show advanced settings.” Next, click on the “Privacy” heading, and then click “Content settings …” In this menu, check the box next to “Block third-party cookies and site data.”

Firefox: Click on the three lines in the Firefox browser’s top right-hand corner. In the "Options" menu, choose "Privacy & Security." On the right-hand side of the page, you’ll then see Firefox's "Content Blocking" choices. Check the circle next to the "Custom" option. Next, select the checkbox "Cookies." After that, you can choose "All third-party cookies" in the drop-down list.

Laws regulating tracking cookies

The days of third-party cookies might be coming to an end. Google, for instance, has announced that it will stop using third-party tracking cookies on its Chrome browser by 2022. This is big because Chrome is the most used browser in the world.

But it’s not just private companies that are taking steps to limit third-party cookies. Governments are starting to enact legislation to create civil and criminal penalties for companies, marketers, and others who don’t inform consumers that their websites use cookies.

In India, there are no particular laws against the use of cookies by websites currently. However, the “Information Technology Act (ITA) 2000” data privacy provision has defined data protection standards for organizations and could enforce laws against illegal use of cookies by the servers. 1  It doesn’t actually put an end to third-party cookie use, but recent laws like PDP Bill are about to be introduced, inspired by the European GDPR and similar laws, which could potentially minimize its use.2

1  https://cis-india.org/telecom/knowledge-repository-on-internet-access/internet-privacy-in-india

2 https://www.natlawreview.com/article/privacy-and-data-protection-india-wrap-2020#:~:text=Inspired%20by%20the%20GDPR%2C%20the,2000%20and%20the%20rules%20thereunder.

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