Cookies are very small text files that are stored on your computer when you visit some websites.
Cookies help identify your computer so a website can tailor a user’s experience, track shopping basket contents and remember where you are in the order process.
Cookies do not usually store sensitive information about you, such as credit card or bank account information, photographs, your ID or personal information, etc. The data stored are technical, personal preferences, content personalization, etc.
The web server does not associate you as a person, but your web browser. In fact, if you regularly browse with Internet Explorer and try to browse the same web with Firefox or Chrome you will see that the web does not realize that you are the same person because it is actually associating the browser, not the person.
To understand the consequences of disabling cookies, we will show you some examples:
Almost all modern browsers provide ways for you to control how your computer handles cookies. This includes the ability to block all or different types of cookies – and preventing them from being placed on your machine in the first place. They also enable you to delete the cookies that you already have. However each browser is different – and some offer more fine-grained control than others, or at least control that is easier to find. Anyone wishing to take better control over their online privacy would be well advised to spend some time familiarising themselves with the controls in their browser. However, below we provide a bit of an overview for the most common browsers.
Browsers are of course found on smartphone and tablets as well as traditional computers. Generally speaking smartphone browsers do not provide anywhere near the level of functionality in respect of cookie controls that ones on your PC or laptop do. However this is changing quickly so it is worthwhile trying to find out what controls you can make use of.
Google Chrome provides quite a good level of control over cookies. These can be found under the ‘Settings’ menu, which you can get to by clicking on the spanner icon in the top right hand corner.
Under ‘Advanced Settings’ you can find a section dedicated to Privacy, which includes being able to clear your browsing history – which has several settings options, including deleting all your cookies.
You can also use Chrome to send a ‘Do Not track’ signal to the websites you visit.
However, the ‘Content Settings’ button also gives access to further controls including the ability to list all cookies and delete them individually. This list also includes HTML5 local storage and databases that modern sites sometimes use instead of cookies.
With Firefox you get to the cookie settings by clicking in the menu box in the top left hand corner and selecting ‘Options’. On the pop-up, then select the ‘Privacy’ icon.
With Firefox you can tick a box that tells every website you visit that you do not want to be tracked. This functionality is known as Do Not Track (DNT), however there is no guarantee at the moment that a website will respect that request – and there are no legal requirements for them to do that.
You can also set your preferences for what Firefox will record of your browsing history, including the way it treats cookies. For example, you can choose to accept third party cookies, but have them deleted when you close the browser. Like with Chrome you can also see a list of all the cookies saved and either delete them all or delete just the ones you don’t like.
More recently, the Mozilla foundation have announced that newer releases of Firefox, most likely from June 2013 onwards, will block third party cookies by default.
In most recent versions of Internet Explorer you select the cog icon in the top right corner, choose ‘Internet Options’ from the drop down menu, then select the ‘Privacy’ tab in the pop-up that appears.
IE uses a slider control which you can use to select different levels of privacy, although you can also select the ‘Advanced’ button for a more custom setting for allowing or blocking first and third party cookies.
It also enables you to create lists of sites where you always want to allow or block cookies. However it does not give you the ability to list the cookies you have, or selectively delete them, through this menu.
To do that – you have to use the ‘Developer Tools’, which you can get to either from the cog icon, or by hitting the F12 button on your keyboard. Then select the ‘cache’ menu and view or clear cookies options in the drop down. The problem with this is that have to be on the site in question to do this, and it is not particularly user friendly – most people would be put off by the idea of using the developer tools, because they are not developers!
Under the Internet Options>General tab you also have a tick box that you can set to delete your browsing history when you shut it down. Ticking this will mean all your cookies are deleted when you close your browser.
From Internet Explorer 10 onwards, Microsoft introduced Do Not Track functionality. This will usually have been switched on by default when the browser was first installed. To check your own settings, go to Internet Options>Advanced. Scroll down to the Security Settings, and there you will find a tick box labelled ‘Always send Do Not Track header’. If you tick or un-tick this box, you will need to re-start the browser for the change to take effect.