An HTTP cookie (also called web cookie, Internet cookie, browser cookie or simply cookie), is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored in the user’s web browser while the user is browsing. Every time the user loads the website, the browser sends the cookie back to the server to notify the user’s previous activity. Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items added in the shopping cart in an online store) or to record the user’s browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited in the past). Cookies can also store passwords and form content a user has previously entered, such as a credit card number or an address.
Other kinds of cookies perform essential functions in the modern web. Perhaps most importantly, authentication cookies are the most common method used by web servers to know whether the user is logged in or not, and which account they are logged in with. Without such a mechanism, the site would not know whether to send a page containing sensitive information, or require the user to authenticate themselves by logging in. The security of an authentication cookie generally depends on the security of the issuing website and the user’s web browser, and on whether the cookie data is encrypted. Security vulnerabilities may allow a cookie’s data to be read by a hacker, used to gain access to user data, or used to gain access (with the user’s credentials) to the website to which the cookie belongs (see cross-site scripting and cross-site request forgery for examples).
The tracking cookies, and especially third-party tracking cookies, are commonly used as ways to compile long-term records of individuals’ browsing histories – a potential privacy concern that prompted European and U.S. law makers to take action in 2011. European law requires all websites targeting European Union member states gain “informed consent” from users before storing non-essential cookies on their device.
A session cookie, also known as an in-memory cookie or transient cookie, exists only in temporary memory while the user navigates the website Web browsers normally delete session cookies when the user closes the browser Unlike other cookies, session cookies do not have an expiration date assigned to them, which is how the browser knows to treat them as session cookies.
Instead of expiring when the web browser is closed as session cookies do, persistent cookies expire at a specific date or after a specific length of time. This means that, for the cookie’s entire lifespan (which can be as long or as short as its creators want), its information will be transmitted to the server every time the user visits the website that it belongs to, or every time the user views a resource belonging to that website from another website (such as an advertisement).
For this reason, persistent cookies are sometimes referred to as tracking cookies because they can be used by advertisers to record information about a user’s web browsing habits over an extended period of time. However, they are also used for “legitimate” reasons as well (such as keeping users logged into their accounts on websites, to avoid re-entering login credentials at every visit).
A secure cookie can only be transmitted over an encrypted connection (i.e. HTTPS). This makes the cookie less likely to be exposed to cookie theft via eavesdropping. To accomplish this goal, browsers which support the secure flag will only send cookies with the secure flag when the request is going to a HTTPS page. Said in another way, the browser will not send a cookie with the secure flag set over an unencrypted HTTP request.
Normally, a cookie’s domain attribute will match the domain that is shown in the web browser’s address bar. This is called a first-party cookie. Third-party cookies, however, belong to domains different from the one shown in the address bar. These sorts of cookies typically appear when web pages feature content, such as banner advertisements, from external websites. This opens up the potential for tracking the user’s browsing history, and is often used by advertisers in an effort to serve relevant advertisements to each user.
As an example, suppose a user visits www.example.org. This web site contains an advertisement from ad.foxytracking.com, which, when downloaded, sets a cookie belonging to the advertisement’s domain (ad.foxytracking.com). Then, the user visits another website, www.foo.com, which also contains an advertisement from ad.foxytracking.com/, and which also sets a cookie belonging to that domain (ad.foxytracking.com). Eventually, both of these cookies will be sent to the advertiser when loading their advertisements or visiting their website. The advertiser can then use these cookies to build up a browsing history of the user across all the websites that have ads from this advertiser.
As of 2014, some websites were setting cookies readable for over 100 third-party domain. On average, a single website was setting 10 cookies, with a maximum number of cookies (first- and third-party) reaching over 800
Most modern web browsers contain privacy settings that can block third-party cookies.
A “supercookie” is a cookie with an origin of a Top-Level Domain (such as .com) or a Public Suffix (such as .co.uk). Ordinary cookies, by contrast, have an origin of a specific domain name, such as example.com.
Supercookies can be a potential security concern and are therefore often blocked by web browsers. If unblocked by the client computer, an attacker in control of a malicious website could set a supercookie and potentially disrupt or impersonate legitimate user requests to another website that shares the same Top-Level Domain or Public Suffix as the malicious website. For example, a supercookie with an origin of .com, could maliciously affect a request made to example.com, even if the cookie did not originate fromexample.com. This can be used to fake logins or change user information.
The Public Suffix List helps to mitigate the risk that supercookies pose. The Public Suffix List is a cross-vendor initiative that aims to provide an accurate and up-to-date list of domain name suffixes. Older versions of browsers may not have an up-to-date list, and will therefore be vulnerable to supercookies from certain domains.
Supercookie (other uses)
The term “supercookie” is sometimes used for tracking technologies that do not rely on HTTP cookies. Two such “supercookie” mechanisms were found on Microsoft websites in August 2011: cookie syncing that respawned MUID (Machine Unique IDentifier) cookies, and ETag cookies. Due to media attention, Microsoft later disabled this code.
Main articles: Zombie cookie and Evercookie
Zombie cookies are cookies that are automatically recreated after being deleted. This is accomplished with the help of a client-side script. The script starts by storing the cookie’s content in multiple locations, such as Flash local storage, HTML5 storage, and other client-side storage locations. When the script detects the cookie’s absence, it recreates the cookie using the data stored in these locations.
A cookie consists of the following components
- Zero or more attributes
Because session cookies only contain a unique session identifier, this makes the amount of personal information that a website can save about each user virtually limitless—the website is not limited to restrictions concerning how large a cookie can be. Session cookies also help to improve page load times, since the amount of information in a session cookie is small and requires little bandwidth.
Cookies can be used to remember information about the user in order to show relevant content to that user over time. For example, a web server might send a cookie containing the username last used to log into a website so that it may be filled in automatically the next time the user logs in.
Tracking cookies are used to track users’ web browsing habits. This can also be done to some extent by using the IP address of the computer requesting the page or the referer field of the HTTP request header, but cookies allow for greater precision. This can be demonstrated as follows:
- If the user requests a page of the site, but the request contains no cookie, the server presumes that this is the first page visited by the user. So the server creates a unique identifier (typically a string of random letters and numbers) and sends it as a cookie back to the browser together with the requested page.
- From this point on, the cookie will automatically be sent by the browser to the server every time a new page from the site is requested. The server sends the page as usual, but also stores the URL of the requested page, the date/time of the request, and the cookie in a log file.
By analyzing this log file, it is then possible to find out which pages the user has visited, in what sequence, and for how long.
Corporations exploit users’ web habits by tracking cookies to collect information about buying habits. “The Wall Street Journal found that America’s top fifty websites installed an average of sixty-four pieces of tracking technology onto computers resulting in a total of 3,180 tracking files”. The data can then be collected and sold to bidding corporations.