Whenever you do anything on the internet, you’re being tracked. As a recent segment on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver explains, there is a lot of money to be made from widespread data harvesting. It can be used to sell products, target potential voters, and even just scam people.
Cookies are one of the most common tools for tracking. They are short text files added to your browser that store data related to your visits on different websites. While they have beneficial uses, like keeping you logged in or saving your preferences on the sites you visit most often, they can also be used for more nefarious purposes. Since the mid-2000s, cookies and other forms of personalized third-party tracking have been employed by ad networks—including Google, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, and many others—and data brokers to follow users’ activities around the internet. A cookie can be used as a unique identifier for you that follows you across the internet. They’re a key part of how a web search for some product on your computer can lead to you seeing ads for it in your social media feeds on your smartphone.
Apple was the first major consumer tech company to position itself as privacy-first. Its Safari browser has blocked some third-party cookies since 2017 and all third-party cookies since 2020. In 2021, it also introduced a feature where apps would have to ask for explicit permission from users to track them. (Facebook parent company Meta has claimed this last update alone will cost Facebook $10 billion in lost revenue this year).
Firefox has also blocked some third-party cookies since 2019, and unveiled Total Cookie Protection in 2021 which consigns each site’s cookies to its own separate “cookie jar,” which bars information from being shared with other websites. There has also been a rise in privacy browsers, like those from DuckDuckGo and Brave, that take an even more aggressive stance on blocking tracking. Both use their own custom search engines as well as other privacy focused features like easy data deletion to limit how much data can be gleaned from your browsing activities.
Even Google is getting in on the action. It will start blocking third-party cookies in its Chrome browser (the most popular browser in the world) in 2023—although that is about a year later than was initially planned.
For all this, internet tracking isn’t going away. The methods are just going to change. For example, Google announced that it is replacing cookies with a new feature called “Topics.” And, as an article in The New York Times speculates, the current fixes might serve entrenched interests best, rather than consumers or smaller businesses. With third-party tracking curtailed, it might be harder to track users as they move around different apps and services, but not if they stay within the same ecosystem. If you’re logged into your Google account in Google Chrome, using Google to search the internet, and watching videos on YouTube, Google doesn’t need cookies to track you—it has plenty of data already linked to your account. Similarly, while Apple largely blocks third-parties from gathering data about its users, it still has access to a spectacular amount of information. Meta’s Facebook and Instagram won’t be able to track what you look at on Amazon, but they still have a record of who you follow and interact with. The big tech companies, it seems, will be in the strongest position going forward.
All this is still up in the air, though. Internet tracking is in a transitional phase. The European Union is levying increasingly large fines for breaches of its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws, which might start to skew the risk calculus for some companies. Efforts are also underway to block these new forms of tracking—both DuckDuckGo and Brave have just announced that their browsers will bypass Google’s AMP pages, one of the ways that Google has leveraged its size to further track users. Internet tracking is definitely going to continue but, fingers-crossed, it might get better.