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Computer Care: How to keep your cookies under control

POSTED: November 8, 2013 10:24 p.m.

Computer cookies, just as baked cookies, contain small bits in them. Instead of chocolate chips or raisins, computer cookies have in them bits of data. Usually innocuous and helpful, cookies may on occasion be detrimental to safe computing.

When you log on to often used websites like Amazon or eBay, the system recognizes you because of cookies. Little bits of data or markers are left on your computer from websites you visit so you will be recognized on your next visit.

Whenever I log back on to Amazon, I am greeted with a, “Welcome back, Arthur.” That is due to cookies. Without them, it would be like we went to oft-visited sites as if always for the first time.

As a Gmail user, I don’t have to re-enter my email address and password each time I open the application due to cookies, which retain my user information for me.

Other good cookies include those used in online shopping carts, e-billing websites and those that retain your personalized settings, like on your home page.

Should you clean your computer’s cookies, pick and choose which ones you delete. I noticed that when I inadvertently wipe them all, on sites like Gmail and Amazon, I have to re-enter my log-on information. With cookies gone, your favorite sites won’t recognize you anymore.

Cookies have been around since the mid 1990s when Netscape first used them to track users of their then-new browser. Since then, the use of cookies have become ubiquitous, from traditional tracking of users on retail websites to nefarious tracking of browsing habits in the form of tracking cookies.

The latter is a source of personalized advertising and email spam by having your browsing habits sold to advertisers. Although not technically malware, this type of cookie can be considered a form of spyware.

Have you ever wondered how, after exploring for example various automotive websites, that you begin getting spam email from auto dealers? Look on one site for a product and you’ll get spam from others selling that same product. It’s not a coincidence.

You are targeted, just as you are on the sidebar of Facebook. The ads, thanks to tracking cookies, are generally not random.

Cookies are nothing but text files. They are not self-replicating or able to initiate a program and can’t run code, thus unable to spread a virus or malware. All they do is identify you. They say to the website, “I’m back!” Some expire quickly (shopping cart), while others may remain for a long time (log-on).

Depending upon which Web browser you use, cookies can be managed, but the methods vary. Third-party applications can also be used to control cookies on your computer and as usual, many are free.

Ccleaner is a popular one, found at piriform.com. Aside from managing cookies, it also cleans your registry and empties your caches of junk files. Another is the one-task, easy-to-use Cookie Monster, found at ampsoft.net. Both will allow you to keep your good cookies and get rid of those that track your browsing habits.

Many Internet security suites also incorporate a utility to deal with cookies, so if you have a paid version of a suite, explore the settings for cookie management before you install another utility.

This task can also be accomplished from the browsers without the aid of an add-on utility. To learn how to delete or block cookies using Internet Explorer, go to http://support.microsoft.com/kb/260971for instructions. Alternatively, point your browser to http://www.allaboutcookies.org/manage-cookies/clear-cookies-installed.html for full instructions on how to manage cookies not just for IE, but for Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera as well.

Whichever Web browser you use, be sure you have the latest version installed. By keeping it updated, you can ensure it has the latest security defenses installed. Older, outdated browsers may be a source for cookie-based exploits.

To update most browsers, click on the “About” or “Help” menu at the top of the screen. Then look for “Update.” In Chrome, click the Chrome icon in the upper right corner, then “About Google Chrome.”

You have the option to not accept cookies, but by doing so you lose the functionality of many websites. The site may still allow you to visit it, but it will be the plain vanilla version instead of the loaded version with all the bell and whistles.

Before you wipe out all of your cookies in a fit of paranoia, find out which ones you need to keep, which ones to delete and use a utility, built-in or otherwise, to manage them. By deleting them all on a regular basis may afford you additional online privacy, but it’s also going to unenhance your site visitation and force you to type in all of your log-on information each time you visit your favorite websites.

Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician in Gainesville. His column appears biweekly on the Business page and on gainesvilletimes.com.


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