What is Cookie Profiling?

Cooking profiling may sound ominous, but it's a common practice by marketers online.

Cookie profiling, also called web profiling, is the use of persistent or permanent cookies to track a user’s overall activity online. This tracking does not just happen when you are on a particular site, but it occurs the whole time you are browsing. This kind of profiling activity is often done by marketers who buy advertising rights on thousands of popular websites in order to collect and collate cookie information and create a single “profile” of a user.

Internet advertising, as it is called, targets potential customers based on the manner they browse the Internet. This is the very reason why most websites flash banner ads on their pages. This matter may not be a big deal for some, but others take their privacy seriously and are uneasy about being “followed around” and profiled.

What do cookies do?

Cookies work as a tagging mechanism to identify your computer out of the millions of users accessing the Internet. The information contained in a cookie is used to track a user’s activity when visiting pages online. This tracking is done anonymously, but the user needs to give permission before a site can store a cookie on the machine. Most web browsers nowadays allow users to disable cookies permanently or delete them upon exit.

Why do cookie profiling?

Cookie profiling is the only way for marketers to target potential customers and obtain a possible product purchase from them. By knowing a user’s browsing habits, including sites visited, age, marital status, and political and religious affiliations, they can show him or her advertisements that are appealing, advertisements that he or she will care to patronize. This is a certain way for marketers to increase their profit by widening their customer base.

Cookie profiling that marketers do is actually less alarming than other attempts of obtaining personal information online. Internet phishing, considered now a cyber crime, is a fraudulent way of acquiring highly sensitive data like credit card information, social security number, usernames, passwords, and bank information. This can definitely harm a victim greatly compared to just being followed around whenever you are online using cookies stored on your computer.

However, if marketers acquire personal information by purchasing them from social networks, that is a different case. Users not knowing that their personal information is being shared can be considered a detestable action, even if some users do not actually take it as offensive.

How is cookie profiling done?

Websites store cookies by automatically storing a text file containing encrypted data on a user’s machine or browser the moment he or she lands on a page online. Whether it is a permanent or a temporary cookie, the idea is to create a “log” of the user to facilitate future visits to the said site. When these cookies are collected to create a certain idea about a user, that is called cookie profiling, or web profiling.

Collated data may include browsing habits, demographic data, and statistical information, which are what marketers are after in order to mark a user. Cookie profiling is performed by advertisers, but the cookies they need to create these profiles are obtained from several online sources, mostly from administrators of popular sites receiving millions of traffic monthly. These administrators collect cookie data and offer them to marketers for extra profit.

Implications of cookie profiling.

Cookie profiling is an advantage for marketers because it empowers them on their advertising efforts. The more users are targeted based on the products they like, the higher the chance they will make a purchase. Additionally, cookie profiling can be used maliciously, for instance, stalking on certain individuals in order to victimize them. Cookies can also help solve crimes, especially now that Internet crimes are becoming rampant. In fact, many governments are using social networking sites to track online criminals, and some of them are being caught using information contained in cookies.

Although you cannot prevent people from creating a profile of you using cookies, you can still protect your privacy in several ways. There are several free programs you can utilize to identify companies trying to store cookies on your machine, or programs you can use to delete hidden cookies on your system. Ghostery is a free add-on you can install on your browser; it detects cookies from 500 companies trying to spy on you, gives you background information about them, and lets you block those cookies whenever you want.

To build an impenetrable privacy wall, you can install session and cookie cleaners, such as CCleaner, on your computer and schedule them to clear your browser and machine from these privacy bugs. Another way is to configure your browser to prohibit accepting cookies from untrusted sites

Cookies and social networks

In these times when the Internet has made data collection almost at your fingertips, privacy violations have been hurled at social networking sites, particularly Facebook. Facebook is the biggest website under the said category, and it competes against Google as the most visited site. It has more or less 800 million users from around the world, but that does not keep it invulnerable from the piercing eyes of online-privacy-concerned entities.

Late in November 2011, the European Commission finally acted to stop the social networking site from undermining the safety and privacy of its users. In January 2011, a new EC Directive shall be released in order to formalize the banning of targeted advertising on Facebook.

Facebook, like any other website, utilizes cookies in order to monitor its users. But the problem is that it does not stop tracking after a user signs out of his or her account. Facebook actually uses two kinds of cookies; these two are inserted in your browser when you sign up, while only one of them is inserted when you land at the homepage and does not sign up. Additionally, it uses different parameters for logged-in users, logged-off members, and non-members.

Facebook’s cookies record several bits of information, such as your email address, password, friends, types of posts, and things you like, among others. However, it also uses cookies that work together with its social plug-ins—popularly called the “Like” and “Share” buttons; these cookies record the date, time, and websites you visited. With these cookies, Facebook can paint a picture of your browsing behavior and can identify your religious affiliations, political leanings, sexual orientation, and many other things about you.

Where does Facebook draw the line between privacy infringement and improving its service? Amidst the issues being thrown at Facebook, its representatives said that it does track users after logging out, but it is done for good reasons. Arturo Bejar, a Facebook engineer, clarified that the cookies that record information once a user logs out are for security and protection purposes.

These cookies actually help identify phishers and spammers, detect people behind unauthorized logged-in attempts, disable registration for minors using false birthdate, distinguish shared computers in order to disable the “keep me logged in” option, and helps users access their hacked accounts.

Facebook denies that it uses logged-off cookies in order to sell the information it gathers to third parties. It adds that the cookies are there to personalize the use of the site, to improve the service, and to keep safety and protection at its highest possible level. Moreover, data gathered using plug-ins are anonymized and aggregated, so any of them do not point to specific users. Also, collected data older than 90 days are automatically deleted from the system.

As said, cookies are harmless if you allow trusted sites to use them, but you must reconsider allowing second-rate sites on saving your information. If you do not want being tracked, you can disable cookies on your browser permanently, or you can set it to delete temporary cookies when you exit. Also, you can use plug-ins or add-ons that block harmful cookies; there are also free services online that let you detect online trackers, know what they are for, and let you be in control.