Are cookies safe? Cybersecurity experts break it down

·4 min read

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You're not alone if you've ever wondered whether cookies are safe. (Photo: Getty)
You're not alone if you've ever wondered whether cookies are safe. (Photo: Getty)

Up until a few years ago, you probably didn't think — or care — much about cookies online. But now, nearly every website you visit will ask you if you'll accept its cookies. That raises a really important question: Are cookies safe?

There's a reason for all of these requests for cookie permissions. A European data protection and privacy law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was passed, which pointed out that companies having access to your cookies could compromise your privacy. Why? This collection of your cookies is called your "cookie persona," and it can be shared or sold to companies —without your permission. Or, at least, that was the case before the GDPR was passed.

Still, if you want to surf around freely online, you're going to have to allow some cookies. However, there is a quick and easy way to delete cookies that track you online if that's important to you: downloading software like McAfee Multi Access, which helps remove cookies and temporary files from your computer for you. The software also blocks viruses, malware, spyware and ransomware attacks.

Try McAfee Multi Access for 30 days free. After that, it's $4.99 per month.

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

But is it safe to have these cookies hanging out on your computer if you don't do regular clean-outs? And should you accept them in the first place? Here's what you need to know. 

Remind me: What are cookies?

Cookies are one or several small pieces of data that identify your computer to a website with a unique code, Joseph Steinberg, cybersecurity and emerging technologies advisor, tells Yahoo Life. The cookies are sent by a web server to your device when you're on that server's website — after you give the OK, of course.

Your computer then holds onto that cookie and, when you visit the website again, the server recognizes that it's you, Steinberg explains. Cookies are used a lot by marketing companies to try to gauge what you're interested in and then target ads specifically towards you, tech and cybersecurity expert Chuck Brooks, president of Brooks Consulting International, tells Yahoo Life. Basically, cookies are the reason why you'll check out a pair of jeans on a website, only to get served ads for that 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 basically are.

Are cookies safe?

"Cookies are inherently harmless," Steinberg says. "They are not a form of malware." Brooks agrees. "Generally, cookies are safe and a 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 does increase the risk that hackers may be able to hijack web sessions by impersonating the related cookies," he says. "But, in the real world, those risks are minimal, especially when it comes to most sensitive sites."

Cookies that track your online activities can be a "nuisance," Brooks says. But, he points out, "you can take steps to block them."

He also notes: "If it is a malware-based cookie that was infiltrated via a phishing attack, that is a different story."

Privacy issues can also be a concern, Brooks says, adding that it's a good idea to know who is following your activities. Once you're aware of that, you can review and clean out the ones you don't want. 

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

  1. Click the three dotted lines in the upper right corner (the tools menu)

  2. Select "history"

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

  4. Check "cookies and other site data" and "clear data"

  5. Quit out of browser to save your changes

Know you won't be able to do that on a regular basis? Software like McAfee Multi Access can help take care of it for you. It helps weed out the cookies that you don't want while keeping the ones you do.

Overall, cybersecurity experts stress that cookies are a normal part of using the web. But keeping tabs on who has given you cookies and how long you want them to linger can go a long way towards keeping you safe online.

Shop it: McAfee Multi Access, 30-day free trial then $4.99 a month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

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