Cookies (in the digital sense) have become necessary for online businesses to offer online shopping. They remember your login details, ensure items remain in a virtual shopping cart, and provide you with a personalized experience. But are they safe? The answer is yes—for the most part. Let’s take a closer look at what cookies are, how they work, and when they can compromise your privacy and security.
What Are Cookies and How Do They Work?
Cookies are small data packets that are passed from a web server to your computer to be stored in your browser cache. There are five types of cookies:
- Session cookies – These cookies are temporary and are used only for the current session. These cookies are only kept in active memory and are no longer valid once you close your browser.
- Permanent cookies – These cookies are used to store data over multiple sessions so the web server can remember who you are. They are not automatically deleted and are stored on your hard drive.
- First-party and third-party cookies – Cookies created by your visiting website are known as first-party cookies. Cookies created by websites you are not visiting are known as third-party cookies. These third-party cookies gather information across the websites you visit, creating a more personalized experience based on your browsing history.
- Marketing cookies – Similar to third-party cookies, these cookies are used to show you relevant ads based on your browsing history.
- Performance and analytics cookies – These cookies help companies gather data related to their website’s overall performance and usability.
Risks Posed by Cookies
In general, cookies don’t threaten your security or privacy. Viruses and malware cannot be transferred to your device through cookies. However, there is the potential for cookies to pose a significant security risk. How? Because they can be hijacked.
If someone with malicious intent hijacks cookies during a session, they can impersonate the user and gain unauthorized access to that user’s sensitive information. There are a few ways this can happen:
- Capturing cookies – Cookie capture can happen when the channel is insecure. Typically, cookie transmission comes with a security flag, making it secure. When the security flag is not there, the cookie is transmitted in clear text, making it easy for a hacker to grab the cookie and gain access.
- Session fixation – When a session ID is not properly managed, such as allowing a session token to appear in the query parameters, an attacker can hijack the session.
- Cross-site scripting (XSS) – This happens when users post unfiltered content (such as when they click on a malicious link), making it possible for attackers to steal their information.
- Cross-site request forgery (CSRF) – This occurs when an attacker forces a website to execute unauthorized commands. The user is unaware they are submitting a web request for sensitive information they can access.
- Cookie tossing – Often the result of untrusted subdomains being permitted on a website. This occurs when a user is given a malicious cookie that looks like it came from the site the user intended to visit.
The key to enabling cookies is to ensure they are used in a secure manner. Developers can reduce the risk by doing things such as generating an HTTPOnly flag when generating a cookie. Users should always keep their browsers up to date, block unnecessary cookies, and delete no longer needed cookies.
Connect with Platinum Technologies today to learn how we can help you reduce the risk cookies pose to your organization.