Where all those digital cookies came from

Cookies -- not this kind of cookie --might not be the internet's tracker of choice for much longer.

I’m at work, taking a little web surfing break. I check out vacation rentals on AirbnbI update my Netflix queue, I glance over a New York Times articleThen I go to Marketplace’s websiteThat five-minute break was a lucrative one for data brokers: 53 companies are now tracking me, from just those four sites, most using cookies (the top cookie host, by far, was Marketplace itself, 25! trackers hitchhiking on our URL). 

But the cookie wasn’t always the sinister character it is today.

 "The cookie was invented shortly after HTML itself was invented, in the early to mid 1990s," says Aram Sinnreich, a professor of media at Rutgers University and author of "The Piracy Crusade." Sinnreich says the cookie was created because websites needed to tell advertisers how many visitors they got, and they needed a way to tell the difference between 10 different people visiting their site and one person visiting their site 10 times.

"The easiest way to accomplish this without getting internet users themselves to install a bunch of clunky software," he says, "was to just drop a little piece of code without their knowledge or consent onto their computers, so that the next time they visited, you’d be able to read that code and recognize that they were the same person."

Then websites started using cookies to interact more seamlessly with consumers. 

"It was about consumer convenience," says Ryan Calo, a professor of internet and privacy law at the University of Washington. "The idea is that you drop a little file on a person’s computer and then you know them again when you see them."

You have cookies to thank for being auto-logged onto your email, having Amazon remember what you put in your virtual shopping cart last week and having Google remember that you like the mountain landscape background.

Cookies made the internet faster, more convenient and more personal. Consumers and cookies had a sweet, uncomplicated relationship.

"I think the turning point in all this is when ad networks really started to take off," says Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of non-tracking search engine DuckDuckGo. "What the ad network realized is they could drop a cookie and then track you across many different sites and, in essence, build a profile about your browsing habits."

The once-sweet and humble cookie became the linchpin of the $16 billion data mining industry. Those little, innocent files that were making the internet easier to use were spying on us.

But… maybe not for long. For the most part, cookies don’t work on mobile devices. And now companies like Facebook and Google have found a way to replace the cookie.

"If you’ve ever been to a website, and it’s said, 'Log in with your username and password or log in with  Facebook,' you’ve seen that technology in action," Sinnreich says. 

If you log in the regular way, you’re in cookie-land, but if you log in with Facebook, Google or Twitter, those companies get all of your web surfing information.

"That puts Facebook in a really, really powerful position to really pick up where the cookie left off," Sinnreich says. He says that technology will likely put a handful of companies in control of most of our data.

So…the cookie’s life as the internet’s tracker of choice is crumbling, but that doesn’t mean it’s going away. "We will see tracking move to other fields," Ryan Calo says. "And basically what will be left will be the kinds of uses of cookies for which they were originally developed."

Like remembering what was in your Amazon shopping cart; logging you into your email and remembering the mountain landscape theme you like Google to have.

And consumers’ relationship with the cookie can become uncomplicated once again…. More or less.

"Back to the original cookie… like your grandmother used to make," Calo says.

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.

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