How Dangerous Are Tracking Cookies?
Updated: Jul 28
Running a search online for the phrase "tracking cookies" gives a valuable insight into the often-explored world of technological paranoia. It comes as no surprise that people are becoming increasingly concerned about their online privacy as businesses follow our every move and try their best to sell us things. After all, it's their job.
In this world of scams and incessant advertising about VPNs such as Nord and Express, people are becoming constantly surrounded by the need to make their lives, both online and offline more secure. The likes of Facebook and Google have been called out by society for years now for internet malpractice, and the final straw seems to be fast approaching for most Internet users.
One of the European Union's most famous pieces of legislation in recent years concerned the introduction of tougher laws on data protection and what websites can and can't collect about you. The aforementioned GDPR directive designs to restrict the personal data information that websites collect from you, including tracking cookies. Much like the above search query, a quick type of "GDPR" into Google reveals the below auto-completed entries:
It appears that a lot of people are concerned about the protection of their own personal data, and in this increasingly Orwellian world, this seems justified. None of us want our data to be sold off to big companies or thrown around like a tennis ball and the now four-year-old GDPR legislation aimed to solve this problem through the art of a choice. Whenever someone visits a website, they're faced with a screen that looks something like the below (the below screenshot ironically came from testing website www.cookiebot.com, a site designed to allow you to test a web domain to see if they're complying with the EU's GDPR rules) and ask the user to see if they're willing to allow cookies or decline them.
Cookies come in many shapes and sizes, and the most notorious type of these are tracking cookies that are designed to track online activity for the good of a web service, or in more common cases, for businesses trying to sell products through targeted advertising. Much like in the case of Cookiebot, these cookies are also linked with the website's social media channels and analytics data. It's in a similar way to YouTube's analytics that allow you to see where the most common viewers of a channel from and see if you're hitting your target audience. In short, the usage of such tracking cookies allow websites to see if they're hitting their target audience based on the online profile that these businesses have constructed of any visiting users based on such analytics and other visited websites.
Tracking cookies, especially with the meteoric rise of the importance of adhering to such GDPR regulations since 2016, have gained in notoriety due to their appearance as malware to any unassuming tech user. To the outsider, they're a way of big business to harvest your data and sell it in databases. With data protection a bigger thing than ever before, it's integral to remember that it's the user's decision if they allow those cookies to manifest themselves in their browser.
As an entity in themselves, tracking cookies are neither good nor bad. As a few sites point out, their primary function is to make the online experience all the more seamless and intuitive, hence the collection and linking to analytics data, which all the while is concerned with improving a user's experience on a particular site. However, some may argue that their bad rap is warranted, especially given their key part in data scandals dating from as little as two years ago now.
One of the most intriguing things though is cross-site cookie tracking, whereby sites with links to Facebook, Twitter, and other social network sites can share that information with those social networks and use them to track any online user, even if they don't have an account with those social networking sites. Therefore, even if you don't have Facebook, but a friend sends you a link to a funny video on a meme page, you'll get targeted advertising on Facebook for a clothing brand you bought from previously due to these third-party tracking cookies. The piece that's been doing the rounds on Facebook recently concerns itself with exactly this and it's good to know that you can turn off the linking between Facebook and any sites you visit following the deletion of such information. Rest-assured however that any personal information such as passwords or bank details are securely encrypted thanks to the HTTPS protocols on most websites these days.
In conclusion, are tracking cookies all that bad? I suppose it depends on your world outlook. If you're someone of the persuasion who's all for technological intervention in someone's daily life to improve it, then you'll welcome them with open arms. On the flip-side to this, if you're someone who doesn't want any website tracking what you do, then they're your worst nightmare. In amongst all this however, it is of paramount importance to remember that thanks to GDPR regulations, you have the power to choose whether you're tracked or not. Don't click off those popups when you next visit your favourite websites, just take a look and make sure you've read what's going on behind the scenes.