Are cookies safe? Cybersecurity experts explain

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You are not alone if you have ever wondered if cookies are safe.  (Photo: Getty)

You are not alone if you have ever wondered if cookies are safe. (Photo: Getty)

Until a few years ago, you probably didn’t think or care much about cookies online. But now almost every website you visit will ask you if you want to accept the cookies. That raises a very important question: are cookies safe?

There is a reason for all these cookie consent requests. A European data protection and privacy law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was adopted, indicating that companies that have access to your cookies may be putting your privacy at risk. Why? This collection of your cookies is referred to as your “cookie persona” and may be shared or sold to companies without your consent. At least, that was the case before the GDPR was adopted.

But if you want to surf the web freely, you will have to allow some cookies. However, there is a quick and easy way to delete cookies that track you online if it’s important to you: download software like McAfee Multi Access, which can remove cookies and temporary files from your computer for you. The software also blocks viruses, malware, spyware and ransomware attacks.

To attempt McAfee Multi Access free for 30 days. After that it’s $4.99 per month.

Cookies can track your online activities, but are generally harmless, according to cybersecurity experts.  (Photo: Getty)Cookies can track your online activities, but are generally harmless, according to cybersecurity experts.  (Photo: Getty)

Cookies can track your online activities, but are generally harmless, according to cybersecurity experts. (Photo: Getty)

But is it safe to leave these cookies on your computer if you don’t clean up regularly? And should you accept them in the first place? Here’s what you need to know.

Remember me: what are cookies?

Cookies are one or more small pieces of data that identify your computer to a website with a unique code, Joseph Steinberg, consultant on cybersecurity and emerging technologies, tells Yahoo Life. The cookies are sent to your device by a web server when you are on that server’s website – after you have given OK, of course.

Your computer then stores that cookie and when you visit the website again, the server recognizes that it is you, Steinberg explains. Cookies are widely used by marketing companies to try to measure what you are interested in and then target ads specifically to you, tech and cybersecurity expert Chuck Brooks, president of Brooks Consulting International, tells Yahoo Life. Basically, cookies are why you view a pair of jeans on a website, only to see ads for the exact same pair of jeans when you visit other websites. It can feel like they’re following you and asking you to buy them – and they actually are.

Are cookies safe?

“Cookies are harmless by nature,” says Steinberg. “They are not a form of malware.” Brooks agrees. “In general, cookies are safe and part of the user experience,” he says. “They are certainly useful for password or authentication purposes and for storing your website preferences.”

But it’s what companies and websites do with cookies versus what people think they do in terms of tracking that has given cookies a bad reputation, Steinberg notes. “In theory, the use of cookies increases the risk that hackers can hijack web sessions by impersonating the related cookies,” he says. “But in the real world, those risks are minimal, especially when it comes to the most sensitive sites.”

Cookies that track your online activities can be “nuisance,” Brooks says. But, he emphasizes, “you can take steps to block them.”

He also notes, “If it’s a malware-based cookie infiltrated via a phishing attack, that’s a different story.”

Privacy issues can also be a concern, Brooks says, adding that it’s a good idea to know who is tracking your activities. Once you are aware of that, you can view and clean up the items you don’t want.

It is possible to delete cookies on your computer in the settings of your web browser. Every browser is a little different, but you can delete cookies in Chrome, for example, with these steps:

  1. Click on the three dotted lines in the top right corner (Tools menu)

  2. Select “history”

  3. Check “clear browsing data” and set the range to “all time” or a certain period

  4. Check “cookies and other site data” and “clear data”

  5. Close the browser to save your changes

You know you can’t do that regularly? Software like McAfee Multi Access can arrange it for you. It helps delete the cookies you don’t want while keeping the ones you do want.

In general, cybersecurity experts emphasize that cookies are a normal part of using the internet. But keeping track of who gave you cookies and how long you want them to last can go a long way in keeping you safe online.

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