Surprisingly simple way to stop advertisers in their tracks

This is the page on Google Chrome

Does it seem that ads follow you around the internet? Those are cookies. Advertisers use them to track you. There are many kinds of cookies. Mostly they are harmless, but many advertisers and others overuse them. This leads people surfing the internet websites to use ad blockers. This, in turn leads to advertisers scaling up their attacks.

This is the page on Google Chrome
This is the page on Google Chrome

Cookies are small files which are stored on a user’s computer. They are designed to hold a modest amount of data specific to a particular client and website, and can be accessed either by the web server or the client computer. This allows the server to deliver a page tailored to a particular user, or the page itself can contain some script which is aware of the data in the cookie and so is able to carry information from one visit to the website (or related site) to the next.

This is the same web page on Firefox with noscript
This is the same web page on Firefox with noscript

Why are Cookies Used?

According to this website, cookies are a convenient way to carry information from one session on a website to another, or between sessions on related websites, without having to burden a server machine with massive amounts of data storage.

For example, the first time a user visits a site they may choose a username which is stored in the cookie, and then provide data such as password, name, address, preferred font size, page layout, etc. – this information would all be stored on the database using the username as a key. Subsequently when the site is revisited the server will read the cookie to find the username, and then retrieve all the user’s information from the database without it having to be re-entered. This is convenient for the user.

How Long Does a Cookie Last?

The time of expiry of a cookie can be set when the cookie is created. By default the cookie is destroyed when the current browser window is closed, but it can be made to persist for an arbitrary length of time after that.

Who Can Access Cookies?

When a cookie is created it is possible to control its visibility by setting its ‘root domain’. It will then be accessible to any URL belonging to that root. For example, the root could be set to “whatarecookies.com” and the cookie would then be available to sites in “www.whatarecookies.com” or “xyz.whatarecookies.com” or “whatarecookies.com”. This might be used to allow related pages to ‘communicate’ with each other.

What do browser cookies do?

According to this website, the purpose of the computer cookie is to help the website keep track of your visits and activity. This isn’t always a bad thing. For example, many online retailers use cookies to keep track of the items in a user’s shopping cart as they explore the site. Without cookies, your shopping cart would reset to zero every time you clicked a new link on the site. That would make it difficult to buy anything online!

How Secure are Cookies?

There is a lot of concern about privacy and security on the internet. Cookies do not in themselves present a threat to privacy, since they can only be used to store information that the user has volunteered or that the web server already has. While it is possible that this information could be made available to specific third party websites, this is no worse than storing it in a central database. If you are concerned that the information you provide to a webserver will not be treated as confidential then you should question whether you actually need to provide that information at all.

What are Tracking Cookies?

Commercial websites include embedded advertising material which is served from a third-party site, and it is possible for such advertisements to store a cookie for that third-party site, containing information fed to it from the containing site – such information might include the name of the site, particular products being viewed, pages visited, etc. When the user later visits another site containing a similar embedded ad from the same third-party site, the advertiser will be able to read the cookie and use it to determine some information about the user’s browsing history. This enables publishers to serve ads targeted at a user’s interests, so in theory having a greater chance of being relevant to the user. However, many people see such ‘tracking cookies’ as an invasion of privacy since they allow an advertiser to build up profiles of users without their consent or knowledge.

What are “SuperCookies”?

However, some viruses and malware may be disguised as cookies. For instance, “supercookies” can be a potential security concern, and many browsers offer a way to block them. A “zombie cookie” is a cookie that re-creates itself after being deleted, making zombie cookies tough to manage. Third-party tracking cookies can also cause security and privacy concerns, since they make it easier for parties you can’t identify to watch where you are going and what you are doing online.

How Can I Delete and Remove Cookies?

Cookies are maintained by your web browser, so the method for deleting them will vary depending on which browser you are using. The method for how to clear cookies is listed below. There are some very good web pages and tools available for controlling your browser cookies. Google’s Chrome is the most popular browser. One such website is this page. Although it is not as popular as Chrome, Firefox has a better page for controlling browser cookies with instructions here.

How do you see cookies?

There is a way to see the cookies, but they are listed alphabetically. It’s very hard to sort the good ones from the bad ones. Not very useful. Browsers don’t really make it easy to see these cookies or to remove them. Clearly, there is big money to be made in tracking consumers.

One way to see what cookies are being set is by looking at the JavaScripts that install them. This website has lots of tracking scripts. With the noscript extension, you can choose which to allow and which are completely unnecessary. Unfortunately, as advertising gets more sophisticated, there will be ways that advertisers get around this, too.

How do you prevent prevent tracking cookies?

There is a way to prevent these annoying little spies. You have to do some work, but preventing them is a lot better than removing them. It takes a bit of time and you will have to continue to maintain your browser. For this, I recommend Firefox. You will also need some extensions or plugins to block the cookies. There is also the option to let the browser accept the cookie and then delete it once you close the browser window. Smart!

Why do you help people remove cookies?

Advertising is a two edged sword. Nobody wants to be sold, but everyone likes help with their problems. Finding that balance is sometimes a delicate balance. I don’t like ads that track me around the internet. I do like learning about new things.

Informed people make better decisions. Empowering people helps everyone. People who don’t take drastic actions are more reasonable. I want to deescalate the advertising cookie war by giving people choices and hopefully gaining some trust generated by responsible action.

Doesn’t this hurt your business?

Maybe in the short term, but I don’t think so in the long term. When people understand that the business has their best interests in mind, they know they can take moderate steps to control their environment. This helps everyone.