Quick word of warning: we think the discussion of browser cookies and what they’re used for is important, so we spend quite a bit of time in this article doing that.
If you’d like to jump directly to the instructions for turning off cookies, click the link that corresponds to your browser.
What are cookies?
Like most curious Internet users, you may have wondered how certain websites remember your information, even when you’ve closed your browser. Online games or shopping sites or food delivery services often remember your settings and preferences.
Or, you may be on social media and notice the ads are suspiciously reflective of the products you were wish-list browsing on Amazon last night.
Kinda convenient. A little creepy.
How do they do it? With a delicious little bit of technology known as the “cookie.”
Basically, a cookie is smart piece of text in a digital packet that can help track and remember bits of information for us.
Sometimes, this is useful: cookies can help remember passwords, for example. Other times, though, cookies can be annoying, or even nefarious.
What Do Cookies Really Do?
The main function of a cookie is to help organize and remember small chunks of data and store info like site visits, passwords and form text for things like shipping information.
Remember, your browser is a form of software, so it has several capabilities beyond just surfing the web. Many of its functions involve bookmarking and storing your information and browsing history. Like any piece of software, you want to adjust and customize settings to fit your needs and maximize both security and privacy to help prevent hacking, viruses, hijacking tools and identity theft.
Here’s how a cookie works: a computer browser (the piece of software you use to search the Internet) receives a cookie packet from a website and sends it back without changing anything (which is why it remembers auto-fill data so well). Most of what you’ll see with cookies is online stores using cookies to keep track of the items in a user’s shopping cart while they browse around the rest of their website. It creates a sort of signature or fingerprint that recognizes the defaults and information that’s tailored to your habits and preferences.
If that site has login credentials, you can even close the browser window and pick up where you left off last time, with your items still waiting for you in your cart.
Most people find this aspect of cookies to be relatively harmless.
Keep in mind, cookies are stored on your computer’s Internet browser unless you change the default settings. The purpose of cookies is to store settings, saved login information, auto-fill scripts like your address info, and other types of information for web pages that you have visited.
There is an element of convenience here, but if you are more privacy-minded, you may want to disable cookies on their various web browsers to ensure your data isn’t stored and accessible via cookies. It can also be a simple way to free up space on your hard drive and unclutter virtual memory.
Technically speaking, there are two main types of cookies – first-party cookies and third-party cookies.
First-party cookies are the ones that remember session information like logins and passwords. They come from the websites you deliberately visit. Hence, “first party.”
Third-party cookies are cookies that are set by a website other than the one you are currently visiting.
Of course, there are some nuances. The FTC has a great chart that outlines all types of first- and third-party cookies, which you can read here.
Exploring the Risk Factors
Normally, cookies aren’t a virus risk in and of themselves. They are mostly a privacy risk, which we’ll dig into deeper momentarily. The structure of cookies doesn’t allow them to transfer viruses or malware to your computer because the data in a cookie doesn’t change when it travels between computer servers over the Internet. Thus, it has no ability to manipulate how your computer functions or to change any settings.
But – and there’s always a “but” – some viruses, trojans and ransomware can be cleverly disguised as cookies. To help combat this, especially if you aren’t going to disable all cookies, you’ll want to be sure a have strong antivirus software installed.
One example is the “supercookie,” which can be a potential security concern because a supercookie isn’t really a cookie. Why? It isn’t stored in your browser. That means clearing your browsing data won’t help. The good news is that most browsers will warn you if you aren’t connected to a secure website with the “HTTPS” and padlock icon in the web address. HTTPS websites don’t allow supercookies to infiltrate your computer.
Third-party tracking cookies can also cause security concerns, by virtue of allowing outside parties to see and sell your data. Parties, who by the way, may store your data on unsecured networks, which you have no control over.
Below, we’ll guide you through each step of how to manage your cookies to help protect your online privacy. We’ll cover the leading web browsers most people use today – Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera and Internet Explorer/Edge. (Although, why anyone still uses Internet Explorer is a mystery to us. Sure, it’s the default for Windows PCs. But seriously, folks – upgrade to a better browser!)
Banning all cookies makes some websites difficult or impossible to navigate, so you may just want to delete cookies by clearing your cache and browser history after each browsing session.
That can get a little tedious, though, so disabling some or all cookies is a stronger defense against the prying eyes of advertisers and other “cookie lookie-loos,” as we affectionately call them.
Another approach is simply adjusting your settings to limits third-party tracking cookies can help protect your privacy while still making it possible to shop online and carry out similar activities. It all comes down to the amount of privacy exposure you are willing to live with.
Should I Disable My Browser’s Cookies?
The short answer is yes: you should block some – if not all– cookies.
We’ve looked at some of the risks, but let’s dig a little deeper.
Here’s a potential cause for concern – many advertisers use third-party cookies to track your visits to the various websites on which they advertise. That helps them target the same visitors across multiple websites.
But depending on what kinds of sites you visit, and especially if you share a computer or Wifi signal with others, you may not want everyone knowing your personal business.
Furthermore, if you object to your personal information being sold to any marketers (not just tailor-made ads that target you for items you’re proven to enjoy), then cookies may make you think twice. When websites and marketers buy and sell our data, they are doing a couple things some of us might find objectionable:
- Profiting off personal data
- Potentially exposing us to hackers and other bad actors who may intercept marketers’ data pools, stealing our personal data to compromise our security and privacy.
To avoid this, you can disable all cookies, or at least block third-party cookies in your browser.
Government Recommendations for Online Privacy
The Federal Trade Commission is a governmental consumer protection agency that offers many tips about personal data security and ensuring privacy. This includes consumer alerts about tracking technology like browser cookies. The FTC offers the following advice, which applies to cookies and privacy in general:
“Protecting your personal information can help reduce your risk of identity theft. There are four main ways to do it:
- Know who you share information with
- Store and dispose of your personal information securely, especially your Social Security number
- Ask questions before deciding to share your personal information Maintain appropriate security on your computers and other electronic devices.” For more cookie, security and privacy-related tips, read the FTC’s consumer tips pages.
Can “Private Mode” Help Disable Cookies?
You may have noticed most browsers are offering a separate tab that says something like “Private” or “Stealth Mode.” The objective here is to launch a browsing session that avoids cookies and saved browsing history the moment you close out of the tab.
In theory, this works will for first-party cookies, meaning that Private Mode won’t save your search history, logins, tracking logs of downloaded files, or anything of that nature.
There is a potential hiccup when it comes to third-party cookies, however. Some browsers’ private modes still allow advertisers to collect data and market to you even when you’re back on non-Private Mode browsing. Pay attention to your browser company’s privacy policies to determine how they handle cookies.
If you don’t want to trust Private Mode, you should disable some of all of your cookies.
Managing Cookies and What they Do
First things first – keep your browsers updated. An outdated browser has outdated (and therefore obsolete) security protocols, which leaves you less protected than you are once you update to the latest browser version. Many browsers will let you know with update automatically, or send you a pop-up that it’s time to update to the latest version. If not, you can always look under the “help” tab of the menu to check for updates.
To review and modify cookie and other tracking settings in your browser, look for tabs that say things like “Help,” “Menu,” “Settings” or “Tools.” From there, you’ll see “Options,” “Security” and “Privacy” settings. Once you find these customization options, you can delete (or clear) cookies, or even control when they can be used and how long they are saved.
Some browsers allow add-on software tools to block, delete, or control cookies and advertisements in general. Another consideration is your security/antivirus software. Most quality security apps will offer options to manage cookies as well.
Don’t worry, we’ll walk you through cookie management in this tutorial.
Disabling Cookies in Chrome
Step 1: Click the three-dot icon in the top-right corner of the screen. This is Chrome’s menu.
A drop-down menu will appear. Click on “Settings.”
Step 2: You are taken to the “Settings” screen. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click “Advanced.”
Step 3: The menu will expand to show additional options. Click “Content Settings.”
Step 4: Click on “Cookies”
Step 5: Click the blue toggle button next to “Allow sites to save and read cookie data.”
The button becomes gray and the text changes to “Blocked”
Step 6: Note: If you want to block ONLY third-party cookies, skip Step 7. Instead, click the gray toggle button next to “Block Third-Party Cookies” to make it blue. This still allows first-party cookies to remain active.
That’s it! You have successfully disabled (blocked) cookies in Chrome.
Disabling Cookies in Firefox
Step 1: Click the three horizontal lines icon in the top-right corner of the screen. This is Firefox’s menu.
A drop-down menu will appear.
Step 2: Click on “Content Blocking.”
You are taken to a new screen that looks like this:
Step 3: Choose the strictness level of cookies you want to allow. For this tutorial, let’s use click the bubble next to “Strict,” which will disable ALL cookies.
Step 4: If you prefer to block ONLY third-party cookies, simply click “Custom” option instead of the “Strict” option on the menu. Custom will default to blocking third-party cookies, which means you’re all set!
And that’s it. You’ve successfully disabled cookies in Firefox.
Disabling Cookies in Opera
Step 1: Click the red Opera logo icon in the top-right corner of the screen. This is Opera’s menu.
A drop-down menu will appear. Click on “Settings.”
Step 2: This will take you to a new page. On the left, click “Advanced” under the Settings title.
Step 3: A drop-down menu will appear. Click on “Privacy and Security.”
Step 4: On the right side of the page, a menu opens. Scroll down and click on “Content Settings.”
Step 5: A new screen loads. Click on “Cookies.”
Step 6: Click the blue toggle after the phrase “Allow site to save and read cookie data.” Once this toggle is gray, you have disabled all cookies.
Step 7: If you want to disable ONLY third-party cookies, simply click the gray toggle next to “Block Third-Party Cookies” so it becomes blue.
That’s it! You have successfully disabled (blocked) cookies in Opera.
Disabling Cookies in Internet Explorer/Edge
Step 1: Click the gear icon in the upper right of the page. This is the IE/Edge menu.
Step 2: From the pull-down options, select “Internet Options.” This will open up a pop-up box.
Step 3: Click on the “Privacy” tab.
Step 4: Click the “Advanced” button.
Step 5: Check the box that says “Override automatic cookie handling.” Now you can customize your options.
Step 6: Under “Block first-party cookies” and “Block third-party cookies,” select block to disable whichever type (or both) you want to disable.
Step 7: Click “Ok” on the bottom of the text box.
This brings you back to Internet Options. Click “Ok” on that menu as well. This saves your new cookie settings.
That’s it! You have successfully disabled (blocked) cookies in IE/Edge.
Disabling Cookies in Safari
Step 1: Click on the Safari Menu and click on “Preferences.”
Step 2: This brings up the preferences menu. Click on the “Privacy” tab.
Step 3: Decide your preferences for accepting cookies under “Block Cookies.”
Select “Always,” “Never” or “From third parties and advertisers.”
Step 4: Close the window by clicking the red X.
That’s it! You have successfully disabled (blocked) cookies in Safari!
Learn More About Online Privacy
- The Congressional Hearing on Privacy & Technology on March 1, 2016: Records & Testimonies
- Complete Guide to Facebook Privacy
- How to Disable Cookies in All Browsers
- Secure Passwords 101: Why They Matter + How To Create Them