Securing your browsing: Are ‘super cookies’ tracking you online?


Securing your browsing: Are 'super cookies' tracking you online?

Ever noticed that after searching for certain products online, advertisements of related products may start appearing in various other sites you visit?

Well, that is just one job that websites employ Internet cookies to perform by essentially tracking your ‘digital footprint’ creating a pseudo persona of a user.

Also called an HTTP cookie, web cookie, browser cookie or simply ‘cookie’ is a small text file stored by a website in your computer or mobile device’s browser while you are browsing.

When you visit the site again, the cookie will help the website recognize your device (or you).

Cookies are a reliable mechanism for websites to record a user’s browsing activity including clicking on particular buttons, logins, previous pages visited and information entered into field forms such as names, addresses, et cetera.

If a website doesn’t use cookies, for instance, it may assume you a new visitor every time you click on a new page even after logging in for the first time, requiring you to login again and again!

A majority of popular websites require cookies to be enabled for you to create an account, stay logged in and access entire site functionality without broken portions.

So are cookies bad or good?

While Internet security is increasingly becoming a subject of concern as the interwebs grow, cookies present little worry. Myths propagated by paranoid, less computer-literate users, however, call for the need to ‘demystify’ cookies and focus on real threats.

Cookies are non-executable files and have no ability to replicate, therefore not viruses. They definitely too have no ability to generate pop-up ads or send spam.

First-party cookies are set by the website you are visiting. These tiny text files help the website servers remember you as you navigate from page to page. They are for example, especially useful in e-commerce by eliminating the need to reload your shopping cart each time you move to another page.

These are either session cookies that get erased when you close the browser and do not collect information that can personally identify the user, or persistent cookies that are stored in your computer until expiration or when you delete them.

The latter are able to collect identifying information such as user preferences for a specific website, all this basically enhances your browsing experience.

Third party cookies on the hand are set by other websites who run content on the page you are viewing. Cookies are used as one tool by online advertisers track sites you visit and generate for you targeted adverts based on your digital footprint.

This might be considered intrusive and in bad faith by your favorite websites for collaborating with advertisers to increase both their revenues.

Once these ‘bad cookies’ collect information enough to build your profile after tracking your surfing habits over time, it can be sold to an advertiser.

However, blocking such cookies might lead to a terrible surfing experience as advertisers pay more for annoying ads that take over a whole page and require a user to click through before reading an article.

It is true, however, that if you are a heavy internet user and you stay for months without deleting cookies, they might occupy some significant space on your disc and possibly reduce performance. You might also be upset by the idea that you are being sold to advertisers as a product with zero returns.

Of more concern is that a cookie can support malicious actions on a computer system; the text files are vulnerable to be used by third party` applications to provide information about a computer. Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERT) in 2015 issued a new directive notifying that cookies can be used to allow remote attackers to bypass a secure protocol and reveal private session information.

There is also the emergency of ‘supercookies’ which the New York Times reports are increasingly being used by advertisers to hold more information and web bugs which let sites record statistics and most importantly, are not removed when you clear cookies.

Blocking Cookies

In light of the above insights, you’d ask if it would be necessary to have a plan to counter potentially malicious cookies without losing out on the much-needed benefits they bring.

Visiting respective cookie pages on your browser, you can get easy steps to follow that help ‘bad cookies’ at bay and maintain a seamless browsing experience; Firefox, Opera, Safari, Chrome, Microsoft Edge.

However, your browser cannot delete these ‘Supercookies’. If you are particular about your privacy, you’d want to visit Adobe Settings Manager or try Flash Cookie Cleaner, Flush Flash Cookies, Flash Cookies View, touted to do a much better job.

In addition, an antivirus program like BitDefender Internet Security has a “cookie control” module that detects both viral and spyware attacks.

Plus, once Microsoft Edge implements Virtualization Technology, we can as well say goodbye to worrying about malicious site compromising our IT systems.

Happy browsing!

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Story By Eric Ndubi
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