Cookies can be useful when you’re in control of them. Today we’re taking a look at how you can control cookies by blocking them except for when you want them to enhance your user experience.
Why Would I Want to Do This?
A cookie is simply a small file that a web site places on your computer to store information. The process itself is totally benign and can even be helpful when cookies do useful things like store your shopping cart information between sessions, save you from the hassle of logging into a site every time you open and close your browser, and other helpful time savers. The ones that give cookies a bad name track users without their explicit knowledge and help advertisers (among others) build profiles of users. Many people want to limit the amount of information that is gathered about them and do so by limited the kind of cookies that their browser accepts and/or retains.
Today we’re going to look at some quick ways to do this is Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome using white lists. It’s much easier to specify which sites you want to accept cookies from than it is to perpetually accept/decline the hundreds of cookies your browser is bombarded with. For each browser we’re going to show you how to handle the task with built-in tools and then with extensions that enhance the experience—if any are available for the browser.
A few quick notes before we continue. First, There are a few downsides to aggressively weeding out all but the essential cookies from your browser. You’ll stop getting custom tailored ads (without cookies to tell the ad server what kind of ads would be best suited for you, you’ll get generic ones) and you’ll start experiencing more intersitial ads more frequently (like pop-over ads and video lead-in ads) as these are frequency controlled by cookies.
Second, this is a rather aggressive approach to controlling cookies. We recommend it if you’re really serious about keeping your privacy on lock down and controlling what third-parties can track about your online behavior and/or as a really great exercise in seeing just how many times web sites attempt to load your computer down with cookies.
Controlling Cookies in Internet Explorer
Internet Explorer has simple but serviceable cookie controls. There are two main areas we’re interested in: managing site status and toggling the cookie acceptance. First let’s look at how to whitelist a site. Click on Tools –> Internet Options –> Privacy –> Sites. Here you’ll find the Per Site Privacy Actions menu which allows you to white or black list web sites.
Manually entering every site you’d like to whitelist is a bit on the kludgy side so we’re going to semi-automate the process by toggling the cookie settings. Visit Tools –> Internet Options –> Privacy and under Settings click Advanced.
Here you’ll find a simple radio-button based menu where you can toggle the settings for first-party and third-party cookies. We’re going to temporarily turn on first-party cookie prompting and block third-party cookies. Rather than try to remember every site you might want to add to your white list, this allows you to accept the cookies on a need-to-use basis as they appear. After a few days of browsing you’ll have likely come across nearly every site you regularly use and will be able to add them to the white list on an as-needed basis. At that point you can toggle it to Block or leave it on Prompt if you don’t find it to be a nuisance.
Unfortunately in the realm of extensions, IE is a light weight and there aren’t any widely adopted cookie management extensions. If you’re a diehard IE user and unwilling to switch to Firefox or Chrome one available option is No More Cookies which allows you to bulk authorize/delete cookies in your IE cache. Compared to the native functionality it’s not a radical improvement, however.
Controlling Cookies in Firefox
If you’re a Firefox user you’ll find robust built-in controls as well as pile of extensions for managing your cookies. First let’s look at the built-in methods. Open up Firefox and click on Tools –> Options –> Privacy. Once in the Privacy menu make sure the Firefox will… option is set to “use custom settings for history”. Uncheck Accept third-party cookies and toggle Keep until… to “ask me every time” .
The ask-me-every-time setting is like the Prompt setting in IE. From now on every time a first-party cookie attempts to lodge itself in your browser cache you’ll be prompted to allow or block it. Again, you should only have to use the prompt method for a week or so until you’ve visited all your regular sites and got them into your white list. If at any time you want to check the list or manually add entries to it, just click the Exceptions button.
If you want to really dig in and get your hands dirty you can examine cookies on a cookie-by-cookie basis by click on the Show Cookies button found on the Privacy tab. There you can get detailed information about cookies and manually delete them. If you want to delve in even deeper, grab a copy of Cookies Manager+. It’s a super-charged version of the native Firefox cookie manager that includes cookie editing, import/export, and more. Firefox’s native tools are more than enough for most people but if you find yourself venturing down the path of cookie-hunting-ninja it’s good to have the proper tools.
Controlling Cookies in Google Chrome
If you’re looking to wrangle cookies in Google Chrome you have the option to do so, although Chrome’s menu settings are the least intuitively worded among the three browsers we’re looking at and awkward to use at best. In order to access your cookie settings under Chrome click on the wrench icon and then navigate to Options –> Under the Hood –> Content Settings. Here you have the rather limited ability to “Allow locate data to be set” (allow all cookies), “Block sites from setting any data” (block all cookies), and “Ignore exceptions and block third-party cookies from being set” which allows first-party cookies to be set, blocks all third-party cookies, but unlike IE and Firefox there is no prompt system. You’re stuck manually managing your white list which is completely unacceptable and far too much effort.
Unfortunately due to this gross oversight we need to turn to an add-on to fix things. Fortunately the add-on does a wonderful job fixing things and after installing it life is good again. Leave everything as it is, but check “Ignore exceptions and block third-party cookies from being set”. Now visit the extension gallery page for Vanilla Cookie Manager and install it.
Vanilla Cookie Manager fills in the massive gap in Chrome’s cookie management toolbox by allowing for easy whitelist management. Every web site you visit that has first-party cookies will have a small white cookie icon in the address bar. Click that icon to block or allow cookies from that site. In addition to managing a white list for you Vanilla Cookie Manager will also clear unwanted cookies at startup and protect your whitelisted cookies from deletion.
Although it would be nice if Chrome had the same functionality that Firefox and IE do, Vanilla Cookie Manager picks up the slack quite nicely. None the less, a simple prompt mechanism to facilitate whitelist creation isn’t an unreasonable request to make of future Chrome releases!
Have a question about cookies or computer privacy? Sound off in the comments; between your helpful fellow readers and the HTG staff you’re bound to find the answer you’re looking for.
Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on Google+ if you'd like.
- Published 05/17/11