How online tracking cookies create family profiles

In a blog post published today, Mozilla product manager Karen Kim detailed an experiment she conducted to see how many tracking cookies were installed in her browser when she investigated a family trip for two adults and two children to Costa Rica.

Visiting various flight, hotel, and car rental comparison sites, and using Google to find tourist information, guidance on traveling with children, and product recommendations, Kim collected a total of 1,620 cookies, of which about 20 percent They were third-party tracking. cookies from analysis and advertising companies such as Google and Facebook. Kim concluded that there was something “insidious” about the whole situation, saying: “In the act of planning a trip online without anti-tracking protection, someone now knows the ages of their children, the interests of their partner, which family dives.” . lesson you have booked and with whom.”

While some cookies are crucial to keeping modern websites running, others are a bit more nefarious. Good cookies track things like your preferred language and the contents of your shopping cart, and keep you logged in when you browse a site. Nobody really has a problem with these types of cookies: they are a necessary part of the modern web. Without them, all but the most basic websites would stop working.

Third-party tracking cookies, on the other hand, are the type of cookies that privacy experts are most concerned about. Combined with other types of tracking, they allow companies and data brokers to create incredibly detailed profiles of your online activities. In the Mozilla blog post, Kim said that advertising companies could have linked the age of her children, the interests of her partner and the tours they booked together. In theory, the information would have been anonymous, as it would likely have been tied to a user ID rather than her name and address, but these anonymous profiles are surprisingly easy to anonymize.

What’s worse, however, is that the same companies could also have created profiles for their hypothetical children. This process starts early. Menstruation and fertility tracking apps, which are currently under heavy scrutiny due to the repeal of Roe V Wade in the US, are essentially starting to collect information about children even before they are born. As their parents search the web for answers to parenting questions, to book vacations and everything in between, that profile grows. Some companies even collect and sell children’s data while they attend online classes. A pre-pandemic report found that by the time a child is 13 years old, more than 72 million pieces of personal data will have been collected about them. That number is almost certainly higher now.

To counter this, Kim suggests using Firefox, which has Full Cookie Protection, a special browser mode that stores cookies in silos to prevent third-party tracking cookies from following you around the web, enabled by default. However, most modern browsers now offer similar features. Safari blocks all cross-site tracking, including cookies, by default with a feature called Smart Tracking Prevention. Brave, Opera, and the new DuckDuckGo browser use similar strategies to block third-party cookies while allowing websites to function normally. Even Microsoft Edge has an option, but you’ll need to enable its strictest setting. The only real hurdle is Google Chrome (unsurprisingly), but it’s even expected to start blocking them next year.

Cookies as a tracking tool are disappearing. Very soon, only users with old and outdated versions of web browsers will be able to be tracked using them. Unfortunately, the biggest problem is that tracking continues to evolve. Soon, there could be a whole range of alternative tracking tools to be avoided. In particular, self-tracking of the websites you visit is very difficult to prevent. And while you can block cookies, it’s impossible to prevent Google from knowing everything you do on Google properties like Gmail and YouTube. If you’re signed in to your account, you can see all the YouTube videos you watch, all the documents you share, and what you search for.

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