MTE Explains: What are Browser Cookies and Why You Should Turn On the “Do Not Track” Mode

Did you notice that while surfing the web, that advertisements you seen sometimes appear to be eerily specific to your personal preferences? This is no coincidence. There is a behavioral tracking action working in the backend. Advertisers where advertisers track your movement in the Web and show you ads that you might be interested in. These tracking are made possible with cookies. There is a growing concern that websites that utilize browser cookies pose a threat to personal privacy and are eroding our basic liberties. This has led users to adopt the “Do Not Track” (DNT) mode which is available in most web browsers. This article will explain what the browser cookies are, how they and discuss DNT feature in more depth.

Browser cookies are text files containing information of a particular website that are stored on a user’s computer by their web browser. The data contained in a cookie could include login details, shopping cart information, pages visited on the relevant site and so forth. Whenever the user navigates back to a website, the cookie is utilized by that relevant website to “personalize” a user’s experience. Google itself is the main culprit of the advertisements that follow you around the place – they use cookies that track your activity across multiple websites.

For example, User A navigates to a blog that discusses all types of wine. Google records this visit and stores it on the user’s computer as a cookie.

Browser-Cookies-Wine-Blog

When the user then clicks through to an alternate unrelated website, the information contained in the cookie is utilized by Google Adwords to keep track of where the user has recently visited. On this new unrelated website, Google Adwords shows the viewer an ad to purchase wine. Seeing as the user was just on a site about wine, they are more likely to click on this advertisement and make a purchase!

Browser-Cookies-Wine-Advertisement-on-unrelated-website

Cookies aren’t always nefarious – as previously mentioned, they are a key factor in personalizing a user’s website experience – whether by remembering your login or customizing the layout of the site. However, there has been increasing discussion over the erosion of personal privacy by tracking cookies. Tracking cookies, particularly third-party types, are being used by advertisers to store private browsing information such as the types of sites visited and what actions they performed on them.  The information compiled by cookies could even be as in-depth as containing a user’s credit card details or address.

Apart from the immediate consequences from these type of cookies, such as the potential of identity theft if a user’s personal data falls into the wrong hands, this could have profound long term implications The personal information accumulated by cookies can formulate a profile of you that has the potential to be less than accurate, which according to this article “can be used by credit agencies, big corporations, and health insurance companies to make decisions about you that can literally affect your life and livelihood.”

For user’s wanting to err on the side of caution, it is best to configure your web browser so that it does not utilize browser cookies or allow them to be stored on your computer.  The DNT feature, which is now available in more recent versions of web browsers, incorporates the text “DNT=1″ into the browser heading whenever the user surfs the internet. “DNT=1″ essentially expresses to the web advertising company that the user does not want their online behaviour collected and stored without their explicit permission. Furthermore, since DNT is implemented in a browser’s header and not as a cookie, users can erase cookies from their web browser as per usual without affecting DNT’s functionality. Therefore, turning on the DNT feature means that advertisements would still appear but no longer be targeted to the user’s interests as well as the user’s personal information not being gathered.

Browser-Cookies-Firefox-DNT-Example

Although the DNT feature appears clear cut theoretically, in reality the issue is that websites do not have to abide by this order as it is completely voluntary. About 99% of websites today do not follow the Do Not Track Me standard. Critics claim that DNT would spell death to the Internet as it solely relies on advertising websites for its sustainability and therefore choose to not adopt it. When Microsoft decided to incorporate the feature in Internet Explorer 10, companies in the US lashed out citing that it would “harm consumers, hurt competition and undermine American innovation.” It is definitely not a cause of DNT being a difficult task to implement, as some websites such as The Associated Press, the first follower of the DNT method reported that “it only took a few hours for one engineer to implement.”

If you want to protect your personal information and interests then it is recommended to implement the DNT feature in your respective web browser. However, as it is not an ingrained rule, only a minimal amount of websites are willing to follow it with regards to browser cookies. Therefore, it is feasible to utilize add-ons, extensions and opt-outs (such as Do Not Track Meby Abine) that have a far greater impact on blocked ads than DNT ever could.