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Over the past few years and particularly recently, you might have noticed a change when you browse the internet: Practically every website will ask you if you'll accept cookies.
It's due to a European data protection and privacy law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Your so-called "cookie persona" (i.e. the online collection of your cookies) can be shared or sold to companies, and the law has recognized that this could compromise your privacy, Chuck Brooks, tech and cybersecurity expert and president of Brooks Consulting International, tells Yahoo Life. The result? You get asked everywhere if you're OK with allowing cookies.
There is a quick and easy way to delete cookies that track you online: You can download software like McAfee Multi Access, which removes cookies and temporary files from your computer for you. An added bonus: It also blocks viruses, malware, spyware and ransomware attacks.
But it's only natural to have questions about whether you should even allow cookies in the first place. Here's what you need to know.
First, a recap on what cookies are.
Cookies are one or more small pieces of data that identify your computer to a website with a unique code, Joseph Steinberg, cybersecurity expert and emerging technologies advisor, tells Yahoo Life. The cookies are sent by a web server to your laptop, phone or tablet while you're on that server's website. (Once you give the OK, of course.)
Your device stores the cookies and when you visit the website again, the server recognizes you, Steinberg explains. In addition to using cookies to know who you are, cookies are often used by marketing companies to target ads towards you, which explains why you might consider buying a pair of jeans on a website, only to see ads for those jeans when you go on other sites.
So, should you allow cookies?
Some websites won't let you fully explore them without allowing cookies, making this a tricky issue.
Under GDPR, most people get daily requests from websites to allow permission to use tracking cookies, Brooks points out. "Users should always ask themselves, 'Do I want to have the site accessible to my personal data?'" he says.
But, "generally speaking, cookies are fine and you can allow them," Steinberg says. "In fact," he adds, "cookies can be extremely useful — and many common activities would be difficult, if not practically impossible to achieve, without them."
Authentication cookies, for example, allow a user who logs onto a website to click and view multiple pages on the site without having to re-authenticate each time they try to view another page, Steinberg explains. (Think: being able to cruise around your online bank information without having to log in to see every page.) "In many such cases, cookies are valid for only one 'session,'" says Steinberg, and expire immediately after a web session ends. "But, in some cases, servers are programmed to create and accept such cookies to allow users access for many different sessions using 'persistent cookies.'"
Cookies also allow a site to remember your personalization preferences, Steinberg notes, and refusing to accept cookies can make your user experience less optimal.
"Cookies have a bad reputation because they facilitate tracking, including across websites," Steinberg says. That can allow a provider to track your activity wherever you go online, he points out.
"In general, users should only allow cookies from senders and websites that they really desire and keep it limited," Brooks says.
Don't have the time to be that selective? Software like McAfee Multi Access can take care of it for you, weeding out the cookies you don't want while keeping the ones you do.
Overall, experts stress that all cookies aren't bad — and some can even be helpful. Just be smart about the ones you accept in the future.
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