Cookies and trackers 101: what you need to know

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Dan Shimkus May 8, 2019

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What are cookies and trackers, and what are the differences between first-party tracking and third-party tracking, and what can you do to protect your data online?

What’s a cookie?

A cookie is a small text file sent to your browser by the websites you visit. Cookies can hold a wide variety of information including, but not limited to website preferences, language settings, login information, and other user preferences. Think of cookies as storehouses; they store information in a user’s browser to be read again at a later time.

What’s a tracker?

A tracking pixel (tracker) or tag is a small piece of code on a website. Trackers load when a user visits a website and they collect and relay information about the user’s current browsing situation (device type, location, IP address, etc.) to the tracker operator.

First-Party Tracking

First-party trackers and cookies are created by the operator of the website you’re visiting. They often serve to improve user experience by doing things like remembering what items are in your shopping cart and storing your login info to prevent you from entering it every time you access a particular website. For the most part, these are beneficial and benign technologies that help both the user and the website.

Third-Party Tracking

Third-party trackers and cookies are created by a third-party to the website you are visiting. Instead of tracking you on one particular website, they track you across time and websites by creating a unique browser fingerprint. These third-party scripts collect a wide variety of information and piece together your browsing activity across multiple websites.

– Browser and operating system
– Screen resolution
– Behavioral data: what websites a user visits
– Location and how you’re connected to the web

All of this personal information is used to create a profile of you. Companies use these profiles to serve you with targeted advertising. Additionally, these profiles are sold to other organizations, who then can monetarily benefit from your data points.

How does tracker blocking work?

One of the best ways to protect your data from third-party trackers is through a tracker blocking solution. Tracker blocking apps and browser add-ons block your personal information from being sent to and collected by trackers.

Ghostery takes a two-pronged approach to tracker blocking: a powerful combination of our tracker blocklist and our AI-powered Enhanced Anti-Tracking capability. In the case of Ghostery’s heuristic Enhanced Anti-Tracking feature, generic or null values are sent instead of your personal information. This prevents the third-party companies from being able to collect a clear profile of you, while keeping you and your online activity safer. Additionally, Anti-Tracking makes web pages load faster as it cuts off the flow of information to trackers battling for bandwidth behind the scenes; these trackers ultimately slow down your page loads due to the chain reactions they can trigger.

Ghostery allows you to control what trackers are able to gather information about you: you can tailor what trackers you block and unblock to suit your privacy needs. Try out the browser extension and start a faster, safer, and smarter browsing experience today!