Definition of Tracking Cookies

By Anne Hirsh

Tracking cookies monitor your Internet habits, often to show you relevant ads.
i Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images

A cookie, in computer terms, is a small data file that stores information on your computer. When this information is used to record the movements your computer makes throughout one or more websites, it is called a tracking cookie, because it tracks your pathways from one page to another. The tracking cookie file takes up very little space on your computer because it uses only text, no images or other data-heavy sources.


Tracking cookies may monitor how you use a website so the site can "learn" your preferences and present you with more relevant information. For example, if a movie website uses tracking cookies to see which titles you view, it can present you with other titles you might like within the same category. This is also how retail sites can tell you which items you recently viewed in case you want to return to a previous page. Many tracking cookies are advertisement-related. They record which ads appear when you view a website, so you do not continuously see the same ads, and they may track which pages you browse so they can show you ads that match your interests.


Tracking cookies may be first party or third party. First-party tracking cookies are created and tracked by the website you visit. This tells the site owners which pages are popular, how long viewers stay on a page, which links are clicked and other items that help the company or individual improve the site or monitor traffic. Third-party cookies usually relate to advertising on a site. These tracking cookies can track your movements across multiple sites if the company or person monitoring them has ads on several sites you visit.


Tracking cookies are not malicious software, and they are not viruses or spyware that can monitor your offline activities. However, they do collect data that can identify your computer and your habits, which makes them a concern for users who value private browsing. The primary concern is that a tracking cookie will reveal sensitive information about websites you have visited that you do not want anyone to know about, such as researching a sensitive medical condition. In most cases, the tracking data is inspected for general trends rather than individual behavior, but because the individual identifying data is available, there is potential for unscrupulous use.

Disabling and Deleting Cookies

You can disable tracking cookies in most browsers, but some websites require that you accept cookies, including tracking cookies. To use your favorite websites without exposing your computer behavior beyond necessity, select the "Tools" option in your browser and follow the on-screen selections to enable only first-party tracking cookies. The method varies by browser, but should be fairly easy to locate under "Privacy" or a similar setting. In your browser's "History" menu, you can choose to delete all cookies. This will also delete non-tracking cookies you might want, however, such as cookies that save items in your virtual shopping cart on retail sites. These cookies will generally re-enable the next time you visit the site, but you will lose any prior data.