Tracking cookies have become more important to the financial and content industries in the past few years. They allow us to measure the effectiveness of our digital marketing campaigns and understand how users interact with the site. They enable us to track the success of all digital marketing activity to produce relevant marketing strategies and ultimately increase the ROI.

However, tracking cookies have become the subject of much debate because of how they are used for monitoring user movement around the internet, especially without their knowledge. But with some best practices, you can use them without jeopardizing user privacy. 

What are tracking cookies?

Tracking cookies are internet cookies used by websites to track users as they browse the web. It allows websites to collect information like browsing habits, geographic location, device model and what pages they visit. This information is often used to present users with targeted advertising or to improve user experience.

For example, if you visit a travel website. If the site uses tracking cookies, it might then display advertisements about their plans and discounts on other sites based on your previous search history.

They allow third parties to monitor user activities across multiple websites and build a more complete picture of their online behavior.

How do cookies track?

Tracking cookies work by storing a unique identifier in the form of a string of letters and numbers in the user web browser.

When they are surfing the web, their web browser makes requests of websites’ servers. In turn, user information about their device is sent to the website. The site’s server then sends back the requested page along with any embedded content, such as images or videos, by inserting the cookies into the data stream. The cookies are stored in the user’s browser. Each cookie is assigned a unique ID, which allows advertisers to serve targeted ads to users based on their actions across multiple sites and platforms.

Cookies from other websites can track as well. This most often occurs when the website the user is currently on hosts resources from another website, allowing the cookie server for the second-party website to keep tabs on their browsing history.

how tracking cookies track users
Illustration showing how tracking cookies work

Are tracking cookies bad?

Tracking cookies are not necessarily bad, but they are a privacy concern. They are required to run several websites, especially those that sell products and services.

The issue is that these cookies create profiles of individuals to sell targeted ads or content. While this is not done necessarily with malicious intent, it can still cause problems for some people who would prefer not to be tracked online.

If you don’t mind online advertising, tracking cookies aren’t necessarily a bad thing, since they can help websites make money. If you’re concerned about privacy, however, there are ways to block them.

GDPR and tracking cookies

Tracking cookies are commonly used on websites to track user behaviour and improve site experience. The problem arises when they are used to monitoring the site users. The EU’s privacy legislation, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) interprets data collected by cookies as personal. It prohibits the collection of personal data without consent, which means a website is only allowed to collect information that they voluntarily input. This includes user name, email address, phone number or any other information that they share with the website. The cookie consent must be freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous.

if you are using an advertising network or service that uses tracking cookies, you will need to check their policies to see how they respond to GDPR legislation.

Tracking cookies can continue operating only if they have been granted consent by website visitors. This requirement can be enforced by cookie banners that ask users if they accept or reject cookies. If visitors don’t grant consent, the cookies should remain blocked and websites should only gather anonymous or aggregated data.

Using tracking cookies without requesting and obtaining consent is not legal and will result in GDPR fines and penalties.

How to remove tracking cookies?

Removing tracking cookies requires you to first identify them. This can either be done manually or by using a cookie scanner. It is better to block only tracking cookies, since blocking necessary technical cookies may break the website.

To remove cookies easily in Chrome, press Ctrl + Shift + Del (Command + Shift + Del for Mac OS)  > set time range as All time > check Cookies and other site data > Clear data.

how to remove cookies in Chrome
Removing cookies in Chrome

In Firefox, click the three dots in the upper-right corner > Settings > Privacy & Security > Clear Data under Cookies and Site Data > check Cookies and Site Data > Clear.

Removing cookies in Firefox
Removing cookies in Firefox

In Microsoft Edge, press Alt + F (or Command + , in Mac) > Settings > Privacy, Search, and Services > Choose what to clear in Clear browsing data > set time range as All time > check Cookies and other site data > Clear now.

how to remove tracking cookies in edge
Removing cookies in Edge

In Safari, click Safari > Preferences > Manage Website Data > Remove All > Remove Now > Done.

how to remove cookies in Safari
Removing cookies in Safari

How to block tracking cookies?

All major browsers have options to let users block cookies. Let’s see how one can stop websites from storing these cookies on their web browsers.

In Chrome, go to the settings and search for cookies and other site data and enable the option to block third-party cookies.

Enabling it will turn off these cookies on Chrome. You can also view all the cookies collected from different websites and delete them.

In Microsoft Edge, the user needs to go to Settings and then to the section Privacy and Security. Here there is an option to block third-party cookies.

In Firefox, go to Open Menu and then Options. Under Privacy and Security, you can find an option to block third-party cookies.

In Opera, go to the Opera icon and search for settings. Go to Advanced settings and the option Cookies. You can block third-party cookies there.

In Safari, go to Preferences and find the option privacy. There you will find the option to block all cookies.

For step-by-step guidance, please refer to Ways to Block Cookies in Different Browsers.

Do Not Track (DNT) is a special feature available in most of the browsers mentioned above. It lets users signal the websites to stop tracking them, including using cookies. Even though not all websites respect the DNT setting, it is one feature that users can utilize. You can go to the settings and see the DNT option under privacy and security tabs in most browsers. Learn how to enable this feature in different browsers in detail here.

How to manage consent for tracking cookies?

Regulating the use of tracking cookies is vital for any website using them. The first step is by identifying all the tracking cookies sued on your website. As mentioned earlier, you can use an online scanner to identify these cookies. 

To obtain and manage consent for tracking cookies, use the following recommendations::

  • Inform users about the cookies on your website and the consequences of consenting to their use.
  • Use affirmative action such as a button click or checkbox selection to gain consent.
  • Do not store cookies without prior consent from users.
  • Allow users to opt out of tracking by cookies when they visit the website.
  • Blocking tracking should not interfere with a user’s use of a site. 
  • Let users easily withdraw their cookie consent at any time.
  • Review and update your privacy policy to disclose details about all data collection and use via tracking cookies and how to manage them.
  • Keep a log of user cookie consent to prove compliance with the law.

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Frequently asked questions

What is a tracking cookie?

A tracking cookie is a small text file stored by websites in user browsers to track their visitors’ information or online activities to improve their browsing experience, collect analytical data or for marketing campaigns.

It can either be a persistent cookie, i.e. stay in the browser until their expiration period or when the user removes them, or a session cookie that expires when the user closes the website or browser.

Are tracking cookies illegal?

Tracking cookies are only illegal if they are used without the user’s knowledge or consent. Tracking the online behavior of users without their permission is prohibited by most privacy laws. Such a violation is punishable and the website will have to bear the consequences.

How do I get rid of tracking cookies?

Most browsers allow users to clear the cookies stored in them. You can also block cookies and enable a “do not track” signal. This will prevent the websites from storing the tracking cookies in the user’s browser. However, getting rid of such cookies may affect the performance of specific services of the website that rely on these cookies.

Why are tracking cookies bad?

Tracking cookies, in general, are harmless. They are used to measure the effectiveness of a website’s marketing strategies and help in the digital economy. However, they could be bad for user privacy if used without their consent or with malicious intent, such as user profiling or selling personal information to third parties without informing the users.