Jordan Gloor / How-To Geek
Tracking cookies are text files stored on your device that contain a detailed history of your online behavior. The websites that create them use them to learn about you and decide, for example, what ads to show you.

What sounds delicious and has raised numerous privacy concerns since it was introduced? Why, tracking cookies, of course. Everyone’s heard of them by now, but what exactly are tracking cookies, and how do they work?

What Is a Tracking Cookie?

A “cookie” is a small text file that gets saved to your computer whenever you use the internet. A website will typically save a cookie to your computer when you request data like a web page, image, download, or any other piece of online information. Cookies stay in your browser until they expire on their own.

Cookies are encrypted and contain the details of your interaction with a certain web page with the goal of improving your browsing experience. That can mean saving a password you’ve used before, a search you regularly conduct on your favorite online store, or what language you prefer to view that page in.

Tracking cookies are a specific type of cookie that can record people’s behavior as they browse the internet. They’re commonly used to target advertisements based on that behavior. We’ve all experienced this; you look at a bed-in-a-box mattress once and see banner ads for it on Facebook, Instagram, and Google for a week.

This naturally raises concerns about what data is being collected, who that browsing data is shared with, and how that data is ultimately used — especially if that data is gathered without people’s consent. That’s why most websites today have to ask people’s permission to track their browsing and give you the option to opt-out.

Not every website can read every tracking cookie that gets saved to your device; sites can only read the cookies they create. Third-party services hosted on those sites, however, can read cookies from other web pages. That’s how an ad agency can see what websites you’ve browsed and target you for a specific product as you roam around the web.

Third-party add-ons are where most tracking cookies originate. Examples of that can be advertisements a company sells for revenue that get displayed on the site, social media widgets (like a like button), or web analytics.

Are Tracking Cookies Spyware? Are They Malware?

Tracking cookies aren’t considered spyware or malware, though an argument could be made that they’re adware. Spyware and malware track you covertly, damage your device, and are designed to be difficult to stop — none of which apply to tracking cookies, which you have to opt into and can be disabled.

Tracking cookies also don’t document your private information like messages, photos, or other sensitive data the way that spyware or malware would. Cookies are largely used for advertising purposes and don’t feed your data back to a bad actor — unless they’re hacked

What Information Do Tracking Cookies Collect?

Tracking cookies collect your IP address, geographic location information, what sites you’ve visited, what you looked at while on those sites, what you bought, or even products you clicked on but didn’t buy. All of this is designed to show people hyper-targeted ads and increase the odds they’ll make a purchase.

You can see how this would be a problem if it got into the wrong hands. If, for example, a malicious hacker gets hold of the cookies from your device, they can use that information to create a duplicate, using your credentials saved via cookies to access the information they might not’ve been able to before. Any page pre-saved login credentials would be fair game.

How to Remove Tracking Cookies

Tracking cookies have become fairly ubiquitous, but you can block or remove them from your browser. Certain browsers like DuckDuckGo or Tor don’t allow tracking by default, but if you use one of the more mainstream browsers like Chrome, Firefox, or Safari you can still clear cookies and disable tracking. We have several detailed guides you can follow:

Profile Photo for John Bogna John Bogna
John is a freelance writer and photographer based in Houston, Texas. His ten-year background spans topics from tech to culture and includes work for the Seattle Times, the Houston Press, Medium's OneZero, WebMD, and MailChimp. Before moving to The Bayou City, John earned a B.A. in Journalism from CSU Long Beach.
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