How to Block Tracking Cookies

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Q: How do I stop these tracking cookies that my anti-spyware software keeps bugging me about?

A: The exact procedure isn't always obvious, but it requires at most seven -- and sometimes zero -- taps of the mouse button in your Web browser.

In Internet Explorer 6 (the version available since summer 2001), go to the Tools menu, select Internet Options and click the Privacy tab. Then click the "Advanced . . ." button; in the smaller window that pops up, check the box next to "Override automatic cookie handling" and choose "Block" under the "Third-party Cookies" heading. Click the OK button to confirm that setting.

In Mozilla Firefox, go to the Tools menu, select Options and click the Privacy icon. Click the Cookies heading to display the cookie-acceptance policy, then check the box next to "for the originating Web site only." Click the OK button.

In Safari, you don't have to do anything -- its default setting is to accept cookies "only from sites you navigate to," excluding those from third-party sources.

Cookies, in case you've been wondering, are little text files, measuring no more than a kilobyte or so each, that Web sites put on your computer as a scratchpad to store data. For example, many Web-based e-mail sites use cookies to store your user name, so you have to type in your password only when you log in.

Tracking or third-party cookies come from outside the site you're visiting -- usually, from advertising agencies that place ads at many sites. These companies can combine data gathered by their cookies to see what you read at different sites, but they can learn your identity only if you (or the sites that buy their services) provide that to them.

There are far bigger privacy risks to worry about, online and off, than tracking cookies. But just in case, I've had my browsers set to block third-party cookies for the past few years. I haven't met the slightest inconvenience as a result.

-- Rob Pegoraro

Rob Pegoraro attempts to untangle computing conundrums and errant electronics each week. Send questions to The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071

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