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Do Web Cookies Pose a Security Risk?

Let’s imagine a scenario. You are planning a trip to Yosemite. Thanks to the internet, you can plan this trip entirely on your own. You use your web browser to book a flight to California, look for hotels to stay at, check the weather conditions, and find the best trails to explore. A few days later you’re checking your email account, and there’s suddenly an ad for flights to California. You shrug it off as a coincidence, but throughout the day you notice everywhere you browse there are advertisements about Yosemite. This happens because of cookies.

What Are Cookies?

We aren’t talking about delicious treats with chocolate chips, we’re talking about web cookies. Cookies are a tiny snippet of data added to a user’s web browser when they visit a website. This code is embedded in the user’s browser for a set amount of time or until the user erases it themselves. Cookies change the way a browser interacts with other web pages.

Cookies serve different functions, including recording user activity, storing data, and activating retargeting ads. Other things cookies pay attention to are the user’s behavior on search engines, social media, and websites.

All web cookie functions are used for digital marketing. User data and behavioral information is stored and used for targeted ads. Ads are targeted based on age, gender, location, and more. This is why you will notice an increase in ads on a certain subject after you use your browser to research the subject. Using cookies for ad targeting is a moral debate, as many feel the techniques uses are an invasion of privacy.

Are the Benefits of Cookies Worth the Potential Privacy Issues?

Using web cookies is controversial, but they aren’t necessarily a bad thing. One benefit cookies provide is convenience. Any auto-fill forms used in a browser work because of cookies. Many internet users enjoy the convenience of have pre-filled form fields when signing up for new websites, but without cookies, the forms would essentially be blank every time. Also, it is sometimes nice to only see relevant ads. This increases the likelihood one would actually need something they see in an ad. Cookies are what really personalize a browser, so many users opt to leave them on.

Now, let’s look at the downsides of cookies. Cookies inherently involve a lack of privacy. Tracking cookies allow third-party websites to record any website a user has been to. It’s hard to browse the internet in secrecy with cookies enabled. If someone browses a site and doesn’t want anyone else that uses the same browser to know about it, they risk an ad related to that website popping up later.

Another problem with cookies is the added data security risk. For the most part, cookies are safe, but there have been instances of security problems caused by cookie technology. Some browsers have been found to allow malicious content to access computers with cookies stored. For these reasons, it’s important for users to decide if it’s really worth keeping cookies enabled.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many websites mandate the use of cookies. As such, it is not so much a matter of opting out of cookies, but of clearing the cookies from your browser on a regular basis. Getting into the habit of clearing browser cookies on a daily basis will remove much of the privacy and security threats caused by cookies.

References

Pros and Cons of Disabling Cookies and How to Do It – http://www.websitecookies.com/pros-and-cons-of-disabling-cookies-and-how-to-do-it/

Digital Marketing Guide to Cookies – https://www.targetinternet.com/digital-marketing-guide-to-cookies/

Web Cookies: Not Just a Privacy Risk – https://courses.cs.washington.edu/courses/cse484/14au/reading/cookies-risk.pdf

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What do you think?

Enthusiast

Written by Michael Hayden

Years Of Membership

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