And that's causing fresh consternation among privacy advocates, as well as leaders in the
Cookies are those little bits of code that track your web preferences, in part so advertisers can show you messages based on your supposed interests. They've long been a central part of the grand bargain in which consumers enjoy all kinds of free services -- from web-based email and YouTube videos to
"The industry thrives on the ability to define and identify audiences and target those audiences with specific advertising," said
But over the years, cookies have come under fire from privacy advocates who say their tracking is too intrusive. At the same time, advertisers say they've become increasingly less effective, in part because more consumers are using smartphones and other mobile devices that don't support cookie files.
"Whether any of us likes it or not, cookies are going to disappear entirely or diminish to the point where they are not particularly useful," said
Privacy experts warn that any new system that replaces cookies will likely let Internet businesses learn even more about individuals, especially if it tracks their habits across multiple gadgets that people use throughout the day.
Some advertising companies, meanwhile, fear a tech giant like
"We believe that technological enhancements can improve users' security while ensuring the web remains economically viable,"
The cookies in wide use today are small files that a browser such as
Advertisers and marketing agencies also place multiple "third-party" cookies on a website, to track which ads a computer user has seen and other sites the user visits. That's how they show you ads for Hawaiian resorts for days after you've searched or clicked on travel sites.
Cookies are designed according to common technical standards, which means any company can use the technology. But advertisers increasingly view them as inefficient, since each cookie may provide only a limited peek at a user's web preferences or habits.
Industry officials say information collected by third-party cookies isn't tied to a computer user by name, although privacy advocates say it's possible to compile detailed individual profiles. Some browser-makers including
"Cookies have become more fragile. People don't trust them; browsers are blocking them. So the industry is looking for a replacement," said
To date, no single technology has emerged as a likely successor. Apple now assigns an "Advertising Identifier" code to each iPhone, which lets advertisers collect information from apps or services on that device. Apple lets users reset the code to erase their history, or opt out of ads based on tracking.
But industry executives note
Privacy advocates, meanwhile, worry that new methods may not be as easily blocked as cookies -- although, in theory, companies could design any new system with strong or weak privacy protections, said
"It's not cookies that people don't like. It's tracking," Brookman said.
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