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What do cookies track?

What do cookies track? While cookies can be hard to get your head around, it’s best to understand them.

Essentially, cookies are little text files that a website places on a user’s browser when they visit the site. Many cookies, particularly marketing cookies, track user data such as IP addresses and browsing activities. These, along with analytics cookies, take the name tracking cookies. 

After this short read, you’ll have the answers to what do cookies track, what the GDPR has to do with tracking cookies, and how to be compliant. 

What do cookies track
More on cookies

This article is a part of our series on cookies and cookie consent. Read also:

👉 Third party cookies: What you need to know

As mentioned above, cookies are little text files that a website places on a user’s browser when they visit the site. Many of these are used for tracking. A cookie usually comprises of two pieces of information:
  • a unique ID for each user; and
  • the website’s name.
With this gathered information cookies allow websites to remember users and their preferences, allowing sites to customize page content to the user.

In general, cookies gather data. The type of data collected includes internet habits, prior visits, search history, and so on – but this data can also be sent to the cookie owners’ servers. It’s important to keep in mind that this data can then be utilized to create customized advertising and content. You can find out how to identify the cookies used by your website here.

In Europe, cookies fall under both GDPR and ePrivacy. Generally, the law requires that tracking cookies may only be placed after the user has provided their approval under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This implies that tracking cookies are not permitted to operate, acquire, or process user data without the user’s active consent.

Several EU Data Protection Authorities have aligned their cookie laws with GDPR guidelines. Meaning that, depending on the jurisdiction, you may be required to store cookie consent records in compliance with the GDPR.

What do cookies track?

Tracking cookies are text files that run on browsers and can track various data about the user of that specific browser, such as:

  • search results;
  • actions on a site;
  • browsing behavior;
  • purchases; 
  • preferences;
  • IP address;
  • device information; 
  • location; 
  • when and where you viewed prior advertising; 
  • how many times you have seen an ad; and
  • which links you click on.

You may be asking yourself why cookies are tracking all this information and you’re right to do so! 

Think of cookies as memory for your online activity. Therefore, allowing websites to customize content for the unique user. 

Therefore, the website can remember passwords, addresses, and invoice details, so the users don’t have to enter all of this information every time they visit or buy something from that website. The website might recommend material that is particularly relevant to the unique user, track site activity, and provide detailed data on how the site is being used. This allows website owners to manage and improve their sites. 

Are tracking cookies bad? 

Practically, tracking cookies are pieces of technology; they do not damage or take up much space on computers. However, cookies’ legal or moral aspects are determined by what one does with them, rather than the cookie itself. Remember that, under the GDPR, in most cases, non-exempt cookies can not run without users’ consent and GDPR record-keeping requirements may apply.