Accept cookies? Pros weigh in once and for all

·4 min read

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Person having a snack of biscuits with chocolate crumbs and tea while sitting in front of laptop
Unfortunately, when it comes to online cookies, there's no one-size-fits-all answer for whether to accept or decline. (Photo: Getty)

When you’re web browsing, sometimes you might want a cookie, and other times you’ll need to take a hard pass.

You just want to buy a pair of sunglasses. Or book a vacay. Or find out when the final season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will air. But when you browse a site you haven’t been on before or in a while, you’re confronted by an annoying pop-up with a warning, “This Website Uses Cookies.” And in our desire just to get on with it, we click “Allow Cookies” without a second thought. But is our zeal going to turn into a cybersecurity nightmare down the line? There’s really not a simple answer. Cyber security experts explain when they accept and when they decline, but first a quick primer on what the heck these kinds of cookies even are.

Inside A Cookie

In the cyber universe, cookies aren’t sweet treats. They’re small text files stored in a browser, like Google Chrome or Firefox. Sometimes they’re helpful, remembering your shopping preferences or location so you don’t have to re-enter all the info. “But other times they can be used in a bad way to track activity,” says Chris Hughes, an adjunct professor at University of Maryland’s School of Cybersecurity & Information Technology. “That’s why they’re tricky.” An antivirus software like McAfee can help protect your browser from malicious cookies when it can be hard to identify the good from the bad.

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Attractive man using smartphone with laptop nearby.
Empty your virtual cookie jar every so often and you may get faster browser speeds. (Photo: Getty)

A Good Cookie or Not?

Whether you should click on the “Allow Cookies” button depends on the circumstances.

ALLOW COOKIES “If you’re shopping or looking up news on a reputable website that you’ll probably want to go on again, accepting cookies will improve your user experience,” says Hughes. Suppose you go online to check the weather forecast. Cookies are the reason your local forecast pops up without you having to enter your zip code. Or let’s say you put some items in your virtual shopping cart, but decide that you could wait to purchase them until they were on sale. Allowing cookies keeps the items in your shopping cart for the next time you visit the page. Another plus: “You get better product recommendations,” says Hughes. If you browsed fantasy novels at an on-line bookstore, the retailer will likely give you suggestions that are targeted to your literary taste.

DECLINE COOKIES If “third-party cookies” are mentioned in the pop-up asking for your consent, hit decline, says Rob D’Ovidio, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of Criminology & Justice Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia. In the best-case scenario, you’d be giving carte blanche for that website to sell your data to another company who wants to market their wares or services to you. In the worst case, a hacker could gain access to your browser and steal confidential info. Fortunately some browsers have or are in the process of phasing out third-party cookies. For instance, in June of 2021, Google announced that it would phase out third-party cookies by 2023.

DECLINE COOKIES If you don’t plan to be a frequent customer or user of a website, there’s not a good reason to take a chance accepting cookies. For instance, if you’re buying a baby shower gift and your cousin registered at a store that’s across the country (but local to her), you don’t need to accept their cookies. Ditto for other sites you haven’t ordered from before, especially if they’re not encrypted. How will you know? They’ll have an unlocked icon by the web address. If you’re on one of these sites using public Wi-Fi, hackers could steal info collected by cookies. Use an antivirus software like McAfee to protect your browser from malicious cookies.

Empty The Cookie Jar

If you want a do-over about whether or not you accept cookies, Dr. D’Ovidio suggests starting fresh. “My Chrome browser once had 634 cookies,” he says. How you clear cookies depends on your browser and type of device. In general, you’ll click on your “Privacy” tab, which should include options for deleting cookies. Removing cookies may also make your browser faster! Woot-Woot!

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