The Next Online Privacy Battle: Powerful Supercookies


Since the early days of the Internet, major companies and even minor ones have been watching you. You can't really blame them; they need to do it as it helps to sell targeted advertisements and monetize the content you're oftentimes getting for free. They watch what sites you come in from, how long you stay on their site and what pages you visit during your stay. They monitor your scroll depth on individual posts (how far into the content you make it before fleeing to another page) and read any comments you might leave. Much of this is done with the help of HTTP cookies, a little packet of information that saves user preferences and anything else that can be written as text.

Supercookies can re-create users' profiles after regular cookies are deleted.

Like Facebook, cookies have drawn some serious ire from privacy proponents. But, like Facebook, there are some actions that those concerned enough can take to protect themselves. You can log in to your account on the social network and change preferences to keep the most private of information out of the hands of those that search for you. And you can tweak the settings, which, in the case of Facebook almost always default to be the most open and transparent, so that third-party applications are unable to scrape your data. With cookies, your control is more absolute: You can just delete them. Every browser makes it pretty simple, no more than a few clicks.

But now, according to the Wall Street Journal, control is slipping away from the user. Big websites like Hulu and MSN are tracking visitors with supercookies, "which are capable of re-creating users' profiles after people deleted regular cookies," the paper reports.

The new tracking tool was discovered by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. When the joint team brought their findings to the attention of the companies found to be using supercookies, many, like Microsoft, MSN's parent company, claimed to be unaware of the technique and said that it is "inconsistent with our intent and our policy."

One of the supercookies that the researchers found on, a Time Warner-owned service that provides movie news, reviews and showtimes, was capable of looking back at Web-browsing history. The cookie would dig around to see if its newest victims had visited any of more than 1,500 websites in the past, including, the Journal notes, those dealing with menopause, credit repair, fertility problems, and more. Presumably, the cookie was looking to see what sorts of products those it had infected might be interested in buying. It could then provide that information to an online advertising network, which would turn it around and serve up an ad for Clomid.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Technology

Just In