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How to delete cookies

We've all heard of cookies – those small files that web sites store on our computers to make sure they recognize us and can track our preferences. We know they are sometimes helpful but we also know there can be privacy issues if data is collected without our knowledge. So how do we make sure that we only keep the cookies we like?

First of all, what exactly is a cookie? A cookie is a small text file that contains bits of information such as a unique identifier, user preferences, or shopping cart contents. Because cookies are used to gather information about how we use a particular web site, that web site can in turn use the data to offer a more personalized experience.

Sites like Yahoo and Google use cookies to authenticate users and save them the task of logging in every time they return. A site like Weather.com can remember our zip code or street address so we don't have to re-enter the same information on each visit. Another example might be Amazon.com, where a cookie facilitates the virtual shopping experience, offering us a range of personalized goods and services based on items we bought or viewed on a previous visit.

Most of the time a cookie just identifies who you are. However, that identification data can also be used by marketers to build a profile of your web browsing habits, allowing them to fine-tune advertising messages when they see you return to a particular web site or page. This is where the privacy concerns arise, particularly if the cookies are not permission-based or come from third-parties via ad banners or other hidden delivery mechanisms.

While most cookies are from friendly parties and can greatly enhance your web browsing experience, it is recommended that you regularly delete unwanted  cookies or set up your browser to automatically reject ones that are not from a trusted source.

If you use Windows and Internet Explorer, this is very easy to do:

  • With your browser open, select Tools, then click Internet Options. On the General tab, under Browsing history, click Delete... This will bring up an Options window. Make sure the first three options are checked.
  • The first option – Preserve Favorites website data – will allow you to keep the cookies and temporary Internet files from the web sites in your Favorites list, enabling those sites to load faster and retain your preferences. The second two check boxes will delete all other cookies and temporary files.
  • Click on Delete and you will be returned to the Internet Options window. Check the box that says Delete browsing history on exit to make sure this exercise is carried out every time you quit the browser.
  • For good measure, click on the Privacy tab under Internet Options and make sure that your privacy setting is adjusted to Medium or higher. Click on Apply and then OK to exit.

As we suggested above, not all cookies are bad, but it's always worth getting rid of the ones you don't need.

Comment by MK, posted 1/18/2012, 12:12 AM:

I do things differently. I like to know what sites I've visited so keep 31 days of history - serves me well. As to cookies, I've set IE to ask, giving me complete control. Some I accept always, some never, and some (like youtube) I have to manually reject each time so youtube.com remembers me. It's a pain but works fairly well for me.
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