Each time an individual visits a website on his or her device, the website installs numerous cookies into the device’s memory. With as many as a dozen cookies installed at one time, each cookie is instructed to record different information about the individual’s interaction with the website. Once the individual leaves the website—or sometimes when the individual returns to that website later—the cookie sends all of the information it records back to the website. In most cases, websites redirect this information directly to third-party service providers, such as Google Analytics. Cookie-based analytics initiatives compile and analyze this information to assist clients in understanding their web traffic’s behavior on their own sites better, enabling them to conduct more detailed, accurate, and efficient advertising and marketing. Cookies, thus, play a primary role in placing targeted advertisements toward specific individuals and their devices, as well as enabling corporate analytics divisions to build consumer behavioral profiles.

Cookies enable this specific advertising, marketing, and behavioral research due to their collective ability to record highly specific, nuanced details about an individual’s browsing sessions. Although websites and the companies they outsource utilize customized cookies tailored to meet specific needs, there are numerous categories of cookies that are widely used across the Internet, including preferences, security, processes, advertising, session, and customized analytics cookies. Preferences cookies allow websites to remember information that alters how a website looks or behaves, such as an individual’s adjustments to preferred language, region, font, color, and other customizable information, for example, about weather and traffic conditions. Security cookies are used to authenticate users to, on the one hand, prevent fraudulent use of login credentials but, on the other, to remember the identity of an individual and his or her specific device. Processes cookies are essential to website functionality, making navigation and secure-area access possible. Advertising cookies is a complex category of specialized cookies. These cookies are the most important for advertising, marketing, and research. They essentially record a wide variety of information, for example, about all of the websites an individual visits across the Internet, search engine queries and results, and which advertisements and videos are watched. Session cookies similarly record information about what an individual clicks or taps on a website, including any other information about how the user specifically interacts with the website. Analytics cookies serve different functions depending on the website or analytics company that deploys them. In general, these highly customizable cookies can be instructed to govern other cookies. For example, they can command the expiry or renewal dates or times for all other cookies, or instruct which details should be prioritized.

Because of the detailed nature of cookie recording, information exchange, and ubiquitous behavioral analysis practices, companies aim to ensure that the information they are collecting directly reflects specific individuals and devices. Accordingly, many cookies contain specific identification information to allow analytics companies to cross-identify the information they receive. For example, most preferences cookies are instructed to assign a random but unique device identification number to the device. Cookies do not store information pertaining to an individual’s identity, in an attempt to protect Internet users’ privacy. For example, unique identification numbers are indeed deployed for identifying specific devices but are utilized as a means of supplanting personal identity information; analytics companies and websites cannot determine specifically who their visitors are—visitors are identifiable only by number. Some websites utilize JavaScript code snippets to execute the initial installation of cookies onto a device. In some cases, such as with Google Analytics, this snippet records Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and other regional data. However, many of the numbers in these IP addresses are scrambled to protect the individual’s privacy.

Thomas N. Cooke

See also Big Data ; Data Mining and Profiling in Social Network Analysis ; National Security Agency ; Surveillance Culture .

Further Readings

Dwyer, C. Behavioral Targeting: A Case Study of Consumer Tracking on . Paper presented at the Fifteenth Annual Americas Conference, San Francisco, CA, April 6– 9, 2009.

Hand D. J., et al. “Data Mining for Fun and Profit.” Statistical Science, v.15/2 (2000).

Peng, Weihong and Jennifer Cisna. “HTTP Cookies: A Promising Technology.” Online Information Review, v.24/2 (2000).