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Issue #821: April 16-22, 2023

Q: I have Avast Premium Security, which notifies me periodically of a tracking cookie, in anticipation of me registering for another program. Is there any way for me to recognize a tracking cookie?

 – James M.
Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A: Whew!  Seldom have I seen a question so full of unasked questions.  Well, I think I’m up to the task, so let’s get to dreaming them up, then answering them.

Let’s start by talking about exactly what cookies are and what they do.  In the context of computers, “cookie” is one of those nebulous terms that a lot of people have heard, but it seems like very few can give a correct definition.  Cookies are small text files that are placed on your computer by websites as you visit them.  They can contain a variety of data about you and what you were doing on a given site.  Cookies can also be used to uniquely identify your computer as you move around online, making it possible for ads to be personalized to your interests.  The cookie is also what makes things like shopping carts possible on e-commerce websites, and for sites to remember your login credentials between visits.

Cookies bring a lot of good to the web browsing experience, streamlining things, and helping to make the online experience more seamless.  Since they “remember” things about you, there is an obvious potential for cookies to infringe on user privacy.  Well-behaved cookies don’t do such things, but it’s difficult to know which ones are behaving themselves.

In your question, you mentioned tracking cookies.  These are among the less well-behaved ones, though they do have legitimate uses.  Where plain cookies are used to store information by a site that is used only when you return to that site, tracking cookies are a specialized type that are shared by more than one website or service.  Since they contain a history of your action across multiple sites, they can be exploited to track what you do online.  That information can be used for something as innocuous as the previously-mentioned targeted ads, or as nefarious as stealing personal information or passwords.

Most users don’t ever see the cookies stored on their computer, and even if you go and look at yours, it would take inside knowledge of what is stored, and who reads it back, and why, to know whether it is a tracking cookie, and if so, whether it’s one of the risky ones.  To that end, no, there’s not really any way for you to recognize a tracking cookie.

Fortunately, as you’ve discovered, there are scanners that know exactly how to recognize whether any given cookie is performing tracking operations on you.  Such a scanner can detect them, warn you, and even remove them for you.  Such tracking cookies are considered to be a minor form of malware, so most quality malware scanners have this capability.

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Geek Note: I guess it’s time to beg, er, request questions once again, as the queue from which I draw is running very close to empty again.  I have a few ideas for tech stories, but I’d much rather be solving problems and helping you, my beloved readers, than writing a story about something that interests me.  I can’t answer them if you don’t write them.  Asking is easy – just visit the column’s website and click “Submit a question” to get started.

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