Why you should try listening to your cookies

Listen to your cookies with the Listening Back browser extension to understand the real scale of Web tracking.

Listen to your cookies with the Listening Back browser extension to understand the real scale of Web tracking.

Listening to Web cookies can be very interesting, even though they are not particularly musical. Yes, cookies can actually be audible now, thanks to a Web-browser plugin created by Jasmine Guffond. Guffond showcased the plugin at 36c3.

Her reasoning: Corporations use cookies to spy on us, and making them audible helps users realize how ubiquitous the little buggers are.

What are cookies, and how are they related to spying?

Cookies are small pieces of data that websites send to browsers. Browsers then store these files and send them back the next time the user visits the website. This is how the website keeps you logged in, remembers your settings, and so on. All in all, cookies make browsing much smoother.

Those are first-party cookies, that is, files saved by the websites you actually visit. Third-party cookies come from Web services site owners may use for a variety of reasons. They come from analytics services, social networks, advertising networks, and the like.

It’s those third-party cookies that track users’ movements around the Internet. It works like this: Service A’s cookies are used on websites X, Y, and Z, so A knows when you visit X or Y or Z. But cookies from Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other Internet giants are in use across almost all websites. For example, the most commonly used cookie on the Internet comes from Google Analytics.

On the one hand, third-party cookies can be used for good. For example, reliable analytics help people create better content. On the other hand, Internet giants, the owners of the cookies, use them to find out what sites you visit, how you spend time there, and more — and then they use that data to target ads to you wherever you go online.

So, that’s how cookies are related to spying, and that is why Guffond chose sounds as a means of understanding cookies’ impact on consumers. Her aim was to make things that we normally don’t notice difficult to ignore.

Listen to the sound of cookies

Guffond has created extensions for two popular browsers — Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox — that produce a sound each time a cookie is saved to your computer, removed from your computer, or updated. She came up with different sounds for different cookies — you can distinguish Google Analytics from Facebook, for example, by how it sounds.

Guffond calls her project Listening Back, and, as she says, it “translates cookies into sounds.” Her goal is to help people understand the sheer number of cookies we all deal with while browsing the Web.

Listening Back project details

Unfortunately, browser add-ons were never intended to process so many sounds, so as websites load, causing lots of cookies to appear on the computer almost simultaneously, the extension may produce a stuttering sound as the computer tries to play the sounds from all of them. The noise is pretty unpleasant, and you probably won’t want to keep the extension turned on permanently.

According to the Internet Engineering Task Force, browsers should be able to handle more than 50 cookies per domain. However, Guffond’s plugin can handle only 43 — trying to play more sounds caused it to crash, so she had to set some limits. Forty three is still cacophonous, though.

Guffond designated specific sounds for Facebook, YouTube, Google Analytics, Amazon, and some other popular sites, as well as for services whose cookies frequently appear on other sites for tracking and advertising purposes.

Once you’re accustomed to the sounds that different cookies trigger, they will give you an idea of which companies track you the most, and on which sites. And how often. You may even be surprised at the sites that produce certain familiar sounds — for example, a cookie you hear from Facebook on a site you don’t associate at all with the social media giant.

Mind the browser permissions

Keep in mind that the Listening Back plugin requires one of the scariest permissions you can give to a browser extension — to read and change all of your data on the websites you visit. If you don’t trust this extension, then while you’re using it you should avoid entering any sensitive information or visiting sites that require you to log in.

However, the extension is fun and educational, so (with the necessary precautions) I recommend giving it a try — at least, for a couple of hours. And if you use an antitracking tool, such as the built-in Privacy protection feature in Kaspersky Premium or Kaspersky Plus, try visiting the same sites with tracking protection turned on and turned off. The sounds will change quite a bit.