Are Cookies a Cybersecurity Risk?

If you give a bad actor a website cookie, they’ll ask for all of your sensitive information. Or something like that.   

That’s right, folks; Today, we’re talking website cookies! And while we would LOVE it if that involved a spirited debate about snickerdoodles or an impassioned defense of the chocolate chip, when it comes to your business’s security, “cookie” takes on a much, much more sinister tone.   

You’ve probably accepted your fair share in the past – who among us hasn’t? – but how much do you actually know about the safety of web cookies, and could they pose a risk to your organization 

Let’s dive in together:  

What are Website Cookies?  

Cookies are text files that websites use to identify your computer and, by extension, you as a user. The most well-known form of cookie – and the one we’ll be focusing on when it comes to your cybersecurity – is an HTTP cookie, which uses this identification method to track or monitor a given user or browser’s activity on the internet.   

While the origin of the name cookie is debatable at best, the invention of web cookies is credited to Netscape engineer Lou Montulli in the mid-1990s. A true innovation in early internet use, cookies have been a largely unseen part of everyday web browsing ever since – and for good reason, too. HTTP cookies are certainly handy when it comes to bolstering user experience – and profits. They can be used to keep track of shopping carts, maintain preferred settings, keep a user logged in even after navigating out of the page, or, as is the case with many sites looking to monetize their engagement, for retargeting with advertising (more on this later).   

However, legally speaking, a website must ask a user’s permission to use, collect, and redistribute these data points. As a method of gaining this permission, many websites set up pop-ups or content blockers that prevent users from accessing the site until they read and sign off on a cookie policy. You’ve almost certainly seen and approved one of these notifications yourself.   

In that action – in giving a website permission to use HTTP cookies – is where we find the crux of our cybersecurity issue. Because while we’re pretty confident you’ve approved cookie permissions, have you ever actually read what they say?

Yeah, that’s what we thought.   

So, How Could Cookies Impact Your Security?  

By and large, experts agree that the actual technology of cookies is safe, but that doesn’t mean your business isn’t at risk.  

Because the very purpose of cookies is to store, share, and track information, there is inherently a privacy concern when it comes to using them. Third-party cookies, which are HTTP cookies added to a website by a separate organization in order to track user activity even when you navigate from your current page, are particularly dangerous in this regard. Whether they’re used for advertising purposes or data aggregation, these cookies aren’t managed by the site you’re on and thus they can be easily leveraged by bad actors.  

If the information from cookies falls into the wrong hands, your data is at risk of being hacked, targeted by ransomware, and a host of other extremely serious cybersecurity concerns.  

Even standard session cookies (which are website cookies used to maintain user experience and expire after you navigate from the page) can be subject to hijacking by hackers or be the target of dangerous malware.  

So when you click “allow” on a cookie notification, you may actually be allowing cybercriminals access to your and your business’s private data.

Additional security concerns around cookies include:  

  • Cookie permission pop-ups with bad links  
  • Cookie overflow  
  • Capturing cookies from bad websites  
  • And more.   

What Should Business Owners Do?  

Some cookies are a necessary part of doing work online, so your business cannot avoid them entirely. However, there are a few things that you can do in order to keep your information safe from those cybercriminals who would hope to exploit them:  

  • Use Secure Connections Only. Whether it be through your in-office network or using a VPN, members of your organization should only be accessing company information with a safe and well-monitored internet connection. Full stop.   
  • Update Your Settings. You can disable the storage of cookies in your browser settings to reduce risk.  
  • Install Ad Blockers, Third-Party Cookie Blockers, and Antivirus Software. Ensure that you have the necessary software protections in place.   
  • Be Careful With Your Private Information. Regular security awareness training and reminders from leadership should coach your users on how to properly store and share private information. Following these best practices can mitigate the threat of cyberattacks.  

The Future of Cookies  

To this end, reporting by Wired reveals that Google announced as early as January 2020 that they would begin the process of reworking Google Chrome to remove third-party cookies and provide digital advertisers with a new, less invasive way to target potential buyers. While the initial end date for cookies was predicted for 2022, recent announcements have pushed that date back to 2024.   

Advertisers are concerned about how this change might affect their work. And what, exactly, this new tracking cookie-less browser looks like for businesses, we can’t be sure. But so long as your company interacts with cookies as-is, you can never be too safe.   

Don’t Let Cookies Crumble You  

Overwhelmed? We don’t blame you!   

From cookies to malware, understanding the ins and outs of enterprise-level internet safety is a full-time job, and you have enough on your plate already. Start reducing risk quickly with advanced cybersecurity protections from the experts at EMPIST.   

Learn more about our cybersecurity and IT managed service solutions online here. Or, get in contact with a member of our team by reaching out here.


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