Imagine walking around a store, picking up a book and leafing through it. Even if you’d like to buy it, you decide you don’t have the time to read it. So you continue browsing through the store and you end up in the DVD aisle, where you run into a stand of DVDs of the movie based on the book you previously looked at. That might be a coincidence in the real world, but not online. More so when “the coincidence” happens repeatedly with items you browse for on the Internet. That’s called behavioural targeting through tracking cookies, and it’s how advertisers usually track your online behaviour to place their ads strategically. Bear in mind that this behavioural targeting method may threaten your internet security if and when cybercriminals use it to spy on you and record personal data.
First off, what’s a computer cookie?
It’s a small text file or computer ID created when your browser loads a website. It ensures automatic logins and authentication when you want to access a website again, and stores ordering information needed for online shopping carts to remember all the items you put in the cart. So, computer cookies are useful and harmless for the most part. But when used for advertising goals, they invade your online privacy. And when used to act as a form of spyware, they become serious internet security threats.
Advertisers can follow your movements from site to site and build a database of your online activity with the help of the so-called “third-party cookies”.
How do these tracking cookies work exactly? Well, to begin with, you’re always the first party, and the cookies you receive when you visit a website are the second-party cookies. Usually, websites let advertising networks place ads within their pages. If you click on an ad, another cookie is sent to your browser by the advertiser – that’s the third-party cookie. While this type of cookie doesn’t pose an internet security threat, there’s a privacy issue involved. With every new site you visit that’s related to that particular advertiser, the third-party cookie can be traced. This way, the advertiser learns about your online habits and can build up a consumer profile of you – that’s behavioural tracking. Next step: it shows you specific ads matching your interests.
When a cookie gets buffed up, it becomes a supercookie!
Advertisers have come up with a tougher version of the tracking cookie: the supercookie (also known as “the Flash cookie”) which has enhanced tracking capabilities – it can regenerate regular cookies that you had previously deleted and recreate your user profile. In addition, supercookies are much harder to locate and delete because they are stored in different locations on your PC, for example in a file used by a plug-in (most commonly Flash).
When cookies threaten your internet security
Some cookies install adware or spyware applications on the hard drive. Such is the case with the “Atdmt tracking cookie” which can record the sites you visit and ads you click on, thus being a very useful tool for advertisers. But it gets worse: it can also record personal information like credit card numbers and passwords to online accounts. There have been cases of identity theft related to atdmt tracking cookies.
How to deal with tracking cookies:
- Customize the cookie settings in your browser to a stricter privacy level. You can choose, for example, shorter cookie expiration time frames or clearing private browsing data every time you close your browser.
- Delete your browsing history and clear your browser of cookies from time to time, as they cause your computer to run slower. You can either do it manually or use a PC Tune Up tool to improve your system’s performance.
- As supercookies are, in fact, flash cookies, you can turn off Flash and its plugins; however, this will disable visual elements on various sites.
- Make sure your browser is always up-to-date. A Vulnerability Scanner, like the one included in BullGuard Internet Security 12, detects the out-dated software (including your browser whenever the case) on your PC, protecting you from possible cookie-related scams it facilitates.
- Always have an effective state-of-the-art antivirus installed on your computer that includes antispyware. BullGuard Antivirus 12 includes such a feature and keeps you safe from prying eyes.