Why Cookies Are Getting Stale

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Cookies - the near 20-year-old technology that simultaneously makes using the Internet more convenient, while allowing for privacy abuses - will likely disappear over the next few years, as advertisers and tech companies find more effective ways to track users online.

The cookie’s days may be numbered. Cookies, the ubiquitous, sometimes innocuous code placed on our computers to help us auto-login to websites, allowing advertisers to track our online habits, have been a browser mainstay since Lou Montulli of Netscape invented them in 1994. Because cookies don’t work on apps, and third-party cookies are blocked by default in Apple’s mobile version of Safari, advertisers have fervently been searching for another way to track mobile users. Several companies think they have a found a way around cookies’ limitations.

Innocent Name, Unsavory Past

Despite its sweet-sounding name, the cookie has never had a sterling reputation, as it has been used for purposes for good (it’s convenient to not have to log in to Amazon every time) and not-so-good (third-party cookies that track users’ online wanderings without their knowledge or permission) since its creation. The public didn’t even know that the pieces of code were being placed on their computers until they had already been in use for a few years.

Are Cookies Getting Stale?

Since cookies are not compatible with apps, large tech companies, startups and advertisers are searching for an alternative that will allow them to perform cookie-like functions on smartphones and tablets.

The mobile traffic explosion is the reason why tech companies and advertisers feel like cookies should be replaced. In India, mobile generates 61 percent of Internet traffic, according to a recent report from Statcounter, a firm that helps companies track online visitors. The United States, at 12 percent, is below the worldwide average of 20 percent, according to Statcounter. Still, that’s a lot of traffic that can’t be tracked with cookies by Google and Facebook.

Cookies Are So 1995

Another holy grail of the post-cookie tech world is the ability to track users across multiple platforms. This is known as cross device advertising, which is rapidly becoming de rigueur for advertisers wantung to reach consumers on phones, tablets, desktops and smart TVs.

However, in reality, it’s not that easy to track users across myriad devices, yet some companies beg to differ. Drawbridge, a San Mateo-based startup, says that they have "matched people to more than 750 million devices," allowing advertisers that use their service to show you, the user, an ad for a trip to Las Vegas on your tablet after "noticing" that during lunch, you searched flights to Vegas from your smartphone.


The company uses proprietary software to match users and their browsing habits to IP addresses to determine, with some degree of certainty, that a particular user uses a specific smartphone, tablet and computer.

Talk About Big Data

For example. Flurry, a mobile ad tech company headquartered in San Francisco, embeds code in apps to let app makers know how many times am app is opened by a user each day. The company also serves up ads in apps, and they are collecting a staggering amount of data. Their website says, "The service takes in over 3.5 billion app session reports per day totaling more than 3 terabytes, and our storage is in the petabytes."

A Post Cookie World

Experts say that cookies will be around for awhile but that the technology has outlived its usefulness, as the little snippets of code are too easily deleted and defeated.

According to a recent article in USA Today, Google is developing an anonymous identifier for advertising, or AdID – a "super cookie" of sorts – that would allow advertisers to track online user activities. Apple introduced its version of AdID last year for iOS, its mobile operating system.

The USA Today article states that a technology like AdID would give users more control, potentially providing the ability to limit tracking via browser settings.

Google is in a unique position to influence the future of online tracking, as its Chrome browser has about 40 percent market share. Some privacy advocates are concerned that if adopted, a system like AdID would put even more power in the hands of large companies like Google and Apple.

The issue of online privacy is evolving quickly, with cross device advertising and possibly AdIDs as the latest iterations. One thing continues to be clear: To have any sense of online privacy, Internet users will need to be vigilant . Google’s Eric Schmidt had perhaps the last word on online privacy when he said, "If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place."


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Robert Springer

Robert Springer is a freelance writer based in the small mountain town of Sisters, Oregon. He has written articles for national magazines, online publications, websites and newspapers. Before freelancing, he worked in the banking, television and information technology industries. In addition to writing, he enjoys being delightfully distracted by his school-age twins.