They’re After my Cookies!

The internet would not reasonably function without cookies.

Cookies, small pieces of data inserted by a website onto a user’s hard drive (“Cookie FAQ”), allow websites to recognize you as a separate user from other users. Imagine if you were browsing Facebook, and every time you clicked on a link you had to enter your name and password again? It would be awful. It’s darn good that these first-party cookies exist.

However, third-party “tracking” cookies are a little more devious. The same sections of code are put on your computer by advertising companies to track your search history so the companies can target your desires. I installed Firefox and ran the add-on Lightbeam, which visualises this tracking network.

Lightbeam screencap

Wow. Check out that spider-web of Big Data. Circles are visited sites, and triangles are connected sites. Interestingly, the only site I “visited” was Google, my preferred search engine.

Look at all those websites! I visited 13 sites altogether, including Gmail, Popsugar (that big one), and the Toronto Zoo. That’s 13 sites visited voluntarily – so what’s with the other 218? Social media widgets and advertising sites tracked my progress through the web. Now, when I use Firefox, I’ll probably get ads for aquariums and recipes and Halloween stores.

It is a little unnerving having my personal data tracked by ad companies like this. The fact that someone out there can see what you’re surfing is definitely eerie, and it could be argued that these ad websites violate the privacy I’m entitled to by doing so – but, after all, they don’t track my name, my age, or where I live. So, I really have no problem with cookies, but if they creep you out, you can clear them by following the handy instructions here: http://www.aboutcookies.org/Default.aspx?page=2. I like having Google remember my most recent sites, so I’m not in the habit of clearing mine.

Now, I have heard frightening tales of users clicking on what appeared to be an ad, only to find they had accidentally downloaded malware instead and their whole system was knackered. This doesn’t really have anything to do with cookies, and the risk can be successfully minimized.

  1. Use either Chrome or Firefox to browse.
  2. Use antivirus software. ALWAYS.
  3. Just don’t click on ads – seriously. If you want a product, search for it.

To end on a happy note, I think we can all agree these cookies are fantastic:

Cookies

Mmmmmm.

Resources:

“Cookie FAQ”. About Cookies.org. Pinsent Masons LLP, n.d. Web. 25 September 2014. http://www.aboutcookies.org/default.aspx?page=5

“How to Delete Cookies”. About Cookies.org. Pinsent Masons LLP, n.d. Web. 25 September 2014. http://www.aboutcookies.org/Default.aspx?page=2

First image is a screencap of Lightbeam on Firefox; the cookies are mine (they were quite tasty).

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