Understanding The Danger of Internet Cookies: How to Protect Your Privacy Online

By Aleke Francis AO

Internet cookies are small pieces of data that are stored on your web browser when you visit a website. They are used to remember your preferences, login information, shopping cart items, and other details that make your online experience more convenient and personalized.

However, not all cookies are harmless. Some cookies can pose a serious threat to your privacy and security, especially if they are used by malicious websites or hackers to track your online activity, steal your personal information, or hijack your web sessions. This article will explain how cookies work, what types of cookies are there, what are the risks associated with them, some notable cookies hijacking and how you can prevent or limit them.

How Cookies Work
When you visit a website, the web server sends a cookie to your browser, which stores it in a text file on your device. The cookie contains a unique identifier that links it to the website and some information about your visit, such as the pages you viewed, the links you clicked, or the items you added to your cart. The next time you visit the same website, your browser sends the cookie back to the web server, which recognizes you and shows you content that matches your preferences or history.

How Cookies are Classified
Cookies can be classified into two types: first-party cookies and third-party cookies.

1. First-party cookies: These are created by the website you visit and are usually considered safe and reliable. They help the website function properly and provide you with a better user experience. For example, a first-party cookie can remember your language settings, your login credentials, or your shopping cart contents.

2. Third-party cookies: These cookies are created by other websites or entities that have some connection to the website you visit. They are usually used for advertising or analytics purposes and can track your behavior across different websites. For example, a third-party cookie can show you ads that are relevant to your interests, based on your previous searches or visits to other websites.

What Are the Risks of Cookies
Cookies themselves are not harmful, but they can be exploited by cybercriminals or unscrupulous websites to compromise your privacy and security. Some of the risks of cookies are:

1. Tracking: Some third-party cookies can collect and store information about your online activity, such as the websites you visit, the products you buy, the keywords you search for, or the content you view. This information can be used to create a profile of your interests, preferences, habits, and behavior, which can be sold to advertisers or other parties without your consent or knowledge. This can result in targeted ads that may be annoying, intrusive, or misleading. It can also affect your online reputation or expose you to identity theft or fraud.

2. Storage: Cookies can accumulate over time and take up storage space on your device. This can slow down your browser performance and affect your device functionality. It can also make it harder for you to delete or manage your cookies, as they may be stored in different locations or formats.

3. Hacking: Some malicious websites or hackers can use cookies to gain access to your web sessions or accounts. This is called “session hijacking” or “cookie hijacking” and it involves stealing or manipulating the cookie that contains your session identifier or authentication token.

This way, they can impersonate you and access your personal information, such as your email, bank account, social media account, or online shopping account. They can also modify or delete your data, make transactions on your behalf, or spread malware or spam.

Some notable cyberattacks that involved cookies hijacking as of 2022:
✓ In July 2022, a large-scale phishing campaign targeted more than 10,000 organizations and used adversary-in-the-middle (AiTM) phishing sites to steal passwords and session cookies from users. The attackers then used the stolen credentials and cookies to access the users’ mailboxes and perform business email compromise (BEC) campaigns against other targets. The campaign was attributed to the REvil ransomware gang, a Russia-linked cybercriminal group.

✓ In May 2022, a data breach at Colonial Pipeline, a major US fuel supplier, resulted in the shutdown of its operations for several days and caused widespread gas shortages and price hikes. The breach was caused by a compromised password that allowed the DarkSide ransomware group to access the company’s network and encrypt its data. The attackers also stole session cookies from the company’s web servers, which could have given them access to sensitive information and control over the pipeline’s operations.

✓ In April 2022, a security researcher discovered a vulnerability in the popular web browser Firefox that could allow an attacker to hijack the session cookies of any website visited by the user. The vulnerability, dubbed “Cookiemonster”, exploited a flaw in the browser’s handling of cross-origin requests and could enable cookie theft without user interaction. The researcher reported the issue to Mozilla, the developer of Firefox, and it was patched in a later version.

How to Prevent or Limit Cookies
There are several ways to prevent or limit cookies from affecting your online privacy and security. Some of them are:

1. Block or allow cookies: You can configure your browser settings to block or allow cookies from specific websites or domains. You can also choose whether you want to accept all cookies, only first-party cookies, or no cookies at all. You can also delete all cookies from your browser history at any time. However, blocking or deleting all cookies may affect some websites’ functionality and user experience.

2. Browse in private: You can use the private browsing mode of your browser to prevent cookies from being stored on your device. This mode deletes all cookies and other browsing data when you close the window. However, this mode does not prevent websites from sending cookies to your browser or tracking your online activity while you are browsing.

3. Use anti-tracking software: You can use dedicated software that helps you protect your privacy online by blocking trackers and disguising your digital fingerprint. Trackers are scripts or codes that collect information about your online activity and send it back to websites or third parties.

Your digital fingerprint is a combination of characteristics that identify you online, such as your browser type, operating system, screen resolution, IP address, etc. Anti-tracking software can detect and block trackers from accessing your data and modify some aspects of your digital fingerprint to make it harder for websites to recognize you.

4. Use antivirus software: You can use antivirus software that scans and removes any malware or threats that may be disguised as cookies or use cookies to access or compromise your data. Antivirus software can also alert you of any suspicious or malicious websites or activities and prevent you from accessing them.

In conclusion, Internet cookies are not inherently bad, but they can pose some risks to your online privacy and security if they are used by malicious websites or hackers. To protect yourself from these risks, you should be aware of how cookies work, what types of cookies are there, and how you can prevent or limit them.

You should also use anti-tracking and antivirus software to enhance your online safety and privacy. By doing so, you can enjoy a more convenient and personalized online experience without compromising your data or identity.


Aleke Francis AO is a Cybersecurity expert, CyberThreat Intelligence Analyst, Researcher and an InfoTech blogger – afraexkonsult@gmail.com, 08062062303