A brown hat with the text "LDH consulting services" next to it.

Tip of the Hat

21 November 2019

Cookies, Tracking, and You: Part 1


Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

LDH would like to let our readers know that in the eternal feud between Team Cookie and Team Brownie, we are firmly on Team Brookie.
A pan of brookies cut into bars, with two bars missing. One bar sits on top of the other bars.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate a good cookie!
A plate of honey nut cookies.
Unfortunately, not all cookies are as tasty as the ones above, and some we actively want to avoid if we want to keep what we do online private. One such cookie is the web cookie.

Web Cookie 101

You probably encountered the terms browser cookie, HTTP cookie, and web cookie when you read articles about cookies and tracking, and they all refer to the same thing. A web cookie is data sent from a website and stored in the user browser, such as Edge, Chrome, or Firefox. Web cookies come in many different flavors including cookies that keep you signed into a website, remember your site preferences, and what you put in your shopping cart when you were doing some online shopping at 2 am. Some cookies only last until you close your browser (session cookies) and some will stick around after you close and reopen your browser (persistent cookies). A website can have cookies from the site owner (first-party cookies) and cookies from other sites (third-party cookies). Yep, you read that right – the site that you’re visiting may have other sites tracking you, even if you don’t visit those other sites.

However, you don’t need a third-party cookie for a site to track you. Chances are that you’ve been tracked when you are browsing the Web by web analytics products such as Google Analytics. What does that all entail, and how does it affect your privacy online?

Tracking Cookies and Privacy

Many web analytics products use cookies to collect data from site visitors. Google Analytics, for example, collects user IP addresses, user device information (such as browser and OS), network information, geolocation, if the user is a returning or new site visitor, and user behavior on the site itself. A site owner can build a user profile of your activity on their website based on this information alone, but Google Analytics doesn't stop there. Google Analytics also generates demographic reports for site owners. Where do they get this demographic data from? Cookies, for the most part. This is a feature that site owners have to turn, but the option is there if the owner wants to build a more complete user profile.

(Let’s not think about how many libraries might have this feature turned on, lest you want to stress-eat a batch of cookies in one sitting.)

This is one example of how cookies can compromise user privacy. There are other examples out there, including social media sites and advertising companies using cookies to collect user information. Facebook is notorious for tracking users on other sites and even tracking users who do not have a Facebook account. If there's a way to track and collect user data, there's a web site that's doing it.

Using Protection While Browsing The Web

Web users have several options in blocking tracking cookies. The following guides and resources can help you set up a more private online browsing experience:
You can also test out your current browser setup with Panopticlick from the EFF to find out if your browser tracker blocker settings are set up correctly.

Stay Tuned…

But why do users have to do all the work? Where do site owners come into protecting their users’ privacy? Next week, we’ll switch to the site owners’ side and talk about cookies: what can you do to collect data responsibly, regulations around web cookies, and resources and examples from the library world. For now, go get a real-world cookie while you wait!
Have a question or topic that you want us to write about? Email us at newsletter@ldhconsultingservices.com!