The Dangers of Supercookies

Aggressive new software is tracking your every move online. Here's how to stop it

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Browser cookies have been around almost as long as the web. Invented by an engineer at Netscape in 1994, the method for keeping track of people's browsing activity started out as a way for e-commerce sites to store your purchases in a shopping cart and are now widely used. But researchers and regulators now think that the evolution of a more advanced type of cookie known, appropriately, as a "supercookie" poses some serious privacy concerns. Used on websites like Hulu and MSN, invasive new tracking techniques like supercookies track users every move, steal your browser history and feed the data to advertisers, largely undetected. And whereas regular cookies are easy to find and delete, supercookies and history-stealing software are almost impossible to get rid of.

Privacy advocates have been concerned about cookies for ages. While it's convenient for a site like Amazon to keep track of which books you've been shopping for, it's disconcerting for some users that websites save that information and often sold to advertisers. Cookies are stored in a common location and removing them is straightforward. Supercookies, however, are linked to Flash software and stored elsewhere on your computer. Even if you delete your regular cookies, the more resilient supercookies can restore the data. You can delete them--they typically have a *.sol file extension and can be found in the Flash directory--on your computer. To keep your supercookies off of your computer for good, follow these instructions.

Newer, more advanced tracking techniques aren't limited to supercookies. A company called Epic makes tracking software that can actually mine your browser history and steal data about the website you've been visiting. Epic sells this data to advertising networks who place ads around the web and often website owners don't even realize that they're hosting such invasive software. Unfortunately, there's not much a user can do besides installing aggressive privacy software. (Try Better Privacy if you're a Firefox user.) At present, the online advertising industry is largely self-regulated, and despite concerns from privacy experts over the aggressive new tracking techniques, they seem unconcerned.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.