Are you wondering how the pair of sneakers you’ve been eyeing at an online store suddenly popped-out in your Facebook news feed? Perhaps, YouTube suddenly played a video ad of a website you recently opened in another tab?
No—the World Wide Web hasn’t transformed into a weird world of magic—not yet. The experience you had was in fact, a successful attempt initiated by websites to track your online activities using tiny packets of data we call cookies.
Let’s find out how cookies can track your online footprints without you knowing and how you can stop it.
What are Cookies?
HTTP Cookies, or simply, “cookies” are small files of data that are sent to your computer when browsing. The data which are transmitted by websites you visit are then stored in your browser. Once you revisit the website, your computer sends back the original cookie, for the website to recognize your stored preferences. All these activities are invisible to you.
Cookies Are Not Malware
Contrary to some people’s belief, cookies are not necessarily malwares, or any system meant to cause damage to your computer. Generally, cookies are text-based data and are not executable—a property which enables a program. In this case, if it comes in a program format, then it can potentially spread malicious content to your computer through the installation of unsolicited infected software.
The danger of cookies, however, lies in the website’s capacity to share the stored information and pass them onto another website.
Common Types of Internet Cookies
Cookies are particularly useful to websites to make your browsing experience more efficient. Commonly stored data in website cookies are:
- items in your shopping cart
- passwords and usernames for commonly visited websites
- game scores
- other user-generated data preferences (response to a new website design)
Websites use two kinds of internet cookies to track your online activities:
- Session cookies function like a short-term memory for websites. Once you close the browser, it is automatically erased.
- Stored cookies, also dubbed as persistent cookies functions to remember your information for future visits. These cookies are kept on your hard drive until it expires. Features presented by this type of internet cookies include automatically filling-in your username and password to speed-up future logins in commonly used websites.
Third-Party Cookies Tailor-Fit Your Ad Exposure
Advertising companies manage to target your interests and tastes using internet cookies specifically. As you may have already experienced first-hand, targeted ads pop-up even on websites unrelated to the products being promoted. Here’s what you need to know:
- Third-party cookies are placed by someone external to the website you are currently in.
- Most websites such as Facebook, get ads from ad networks. Activities such as likes, comments, age, address and even photo captions help Facebook’s ad partners determine the ads you should see.
- The added network stores a cookie on your computer. When you visit a member site, it recognizes the original cookie and notifies the ad network so it can show ads that are relevant to your browsing habits.
- This mechanism allows advertising companies to save time and resources by avoiding ads redundant to you.
Ways to Block Web Tracking Cookies
The idea of getting personal information accessed by an unknown organization can be alarming for some people. Fortunately, there are ways through which you can opt out of these targeted ads.
As an added user-feature to your account settings, Facebook now gives you the option to stop the tracking. To do this, do the following these steps:
- Click the upside-down button the upper right corner of your Facebook account.
- Select Settings and choose Ads in the left-hand column.
- Once you see the option, ‘Ads based on my use of websites and app,’ click edit.
- In the Choose Setting button, choose ‘’
- Once this option has been selected, it will automatically apply to all devices where you’ve signed in the same Facebook username.
Caution: This option, however, only limits Facebook’s capacity to acquire information about you from its partner, and it can send any of your information to third-party advertisers. However, it can still show you tailor-fitted ads based on data it gathered from you.
If you’re running the Edge browser on a Windows 10 operating system, you can disable tracking as well. To do this:
- Go to the upper right corner of your Edge browser and click on the three-dots.
- At the bottom of this drop-down menu, click Settings.
- On the View, Advanced Settings option, click the drop-down menu under Cookies and choose ‘Block only third-party ‘
To achieve a similar effect on your Chrome browser, here are the steps:
- On the upper right corner of your browser, choose settings > show advanced settings.
- Under the Privacy heading, click content settings.
- Under Cookies, check the option ‘Block third-party cookies and sites ‘
In a nutshell
As advertisers seek more sophisticated ways to capture our attention, it is important we, as consumers, also become warier in the amount of information we give out blithely online.
In the era of advanced technology, it is high-time that we do not lose control over our daily transactions to ensure that our privacy is not being compromised.