You must have browsed through websites and countlessly been interrupted by a pop-up notification asking if you want to “accept all cookies.” Some people just click on any option just to get rid of the notification and continue their browsing.
Cybersecurity refers to the acts of preventing data and privacy breaches on phones, computers, laptops, or any digital platform. Now, the fundamental question that needs to be answered is: is it safe to allow cookies? More importantly, what are cookies, and how are they related to your privacy?
What is a Cookie?
Consider a cookie, a small file that is placed on websites. When a user visits the website, cookies allow the website to find out what activity the user has done in the past.
Cookies are text files with small pieces of data — like a username and password — that are used to identify your computer as you use a computer network. Specific cookies known as HTTP cookies are used to identify specific users and improve your web browsing experience.
Data stored in a cookie is created by the server upon your connection. This data is labeled with an ID unique to you and your computer.
When the cookie is exchanged between your computer and the network server, the server reads the ID and knows what information to specifically serve to you.
The invention of cookies was primarily to help customers have their content be more tailored and customized to improve their web browsing experience.
HTTP cookies are necessary for the modern Internet, yet they pose a risk to your privacy. HTTP cookies, which are a required aspect of web browsing, assist web developers in providing you with more personalized and tailored website visits.
Cookies allow websites to remember you, your website logins, shopping taste, and other information. They can, however, be a goldmine of private information for cyber-criminals to spy on you.
What Are The Types Of Cookies?
Session Cookies: These cookies are deleted as soon as you leave the site. This means your information will not be stored on the device you are using.
Persistent Cookies: Unlike session cookies, these cookies are permanently stored on the hard drive unless deleted manually. They are used to track and explore consumer behaviour and preferences on various sites. For example, language preferences and more.
Third-Party Cookies: this means that a third party has placed cookies on a website you are browsing. The cookies do not even belong to the websites you use, which is usually done for advertisement purposes.
Third-party cookies pose the most susceptibility to cybersecurity risks, and they present the most risk. Ransom attacks and cyberattacks are often the results of the exploitation of third-party cookies.
How are Cookies Dangerous ?
The data stored in cookies does not change, and cookies themselves don’t pose a danger. They cannot themselves infect the computer with viruses. Instead, cyber-attackers can hijack these cookies and allow access to your browsing sessions.
Cybercrime risks can be mitigated if the right professional cybersecurity service providers are hired to cleanse your digital footprint.
Cookie poisoning occurs when a cybercriminal hijacks, edits, forges or manipulates a cookie in order to obtain unauthorized access to a user’s account, start a new account in the user’s name, or steal the user’s information for identity theft.
Cookie poisoning attacks are typically directed at user session cookies. Cookie-based attacks on sessions attempt to trick the web server into believing the attacker is the legitimate user.
Here are some examples of such attacks:
Spoofing a session: The legitimate user is impersonated, as the attacker initiates a new session with counterfeit or stolen session tokens. This form of attack does not require user involvement and can be launched even if the user is not signed into the website.
Session fixation: Attackers utilize a known session identifier to trick a user into logging in to a vulnerable or malicious site using techniques such as a phishing email. The user session is then hijacked by the attacker.
Hijacking a session: When an authentic user logs in to a website, attackers utilize the current session cookie to hijack the user’s session.
Why Cookies Can Be Dangerous
Since the data in cookies doesn’t change, cookies themselves aren’t harmful.
They can’t infect computers with viruses or other malware. However, some cyberattacks can hijack cookies and enable access to your browsing sessions.
The danger lies in their ability to track individuals’ browsing histories. To explain, let’s discuss what cookies to watch out for.
First-Party vs. Third-Party Cookies
Some cookies may pack more of a threat than others depending on where they come from.
First-party cookies are directly created by the website you are using. These are generally safer, as long as you are browsing reputable websites or ones that have not been compromised.
Third-party cookies are more troubling. They are generated by websites that are different from the web pages users are currently surfing, usually because they’re linked to ads on that page.
Visiting a site with 10 ads may generate 10 cookies, even if users never click on those ads.
Third-party cookies let advertisers or analytics companies track an individual’s browsing history across the web on any sites that contain their ads.
Consequently, the advertiser could determine that a user first searched for running apparel at a specific outdoor store before checking a particular sporting goods site and then a certain online sportswear boutique.
Zombie cookies are from a third-party and permanently installed on users’ computers, even when they opt not to install cookies. They also reappear after they’ve been deleted. When zombie cookies first appeared, they were created from data stored in the Adobe Flash storage bin. They are sometimes called “flash cookies” and are extremely difficult to remove.
Like other third-party cookies, zombie cookies can be used by web analytics companies to track unique individuals’ browsing histories. Websites may also use zombies to ban specific users.