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What Are Browser Cookies and How Do I Manage Them?

As an avid internet surfer, you’ve most likely heard of cookies. No, we’re not talking about the ones filled with chocolate chips. We’re talking about the ones that allow you to log in to your favorite websites. Cookies may impact your online security, so check out these tips to manage them and keep your online accounts safe.  

What Are Cookies in Browsers?  

Ever wonder how a website saves the items you placed in your shopping cart last week, even though you closed the tab before making the purchase? This is made possible by cookies. According to the Federal Trade Commission, a cookie is information saved by your web browser. When you visit a website, the site may place a cookie on your web browser so it can recognize your device in the future. If you return to that site later, it can read that cookie to remember you from your last visit, keeping track of your activities over time.1  

First-party vs. Third-party Cookies  

Cookies come in either the first-party or third-party variety. There’s no difference between the two in how they function, but rather in where and how you encountered them. First-party cookies belong to sites you visited first-hand in your browser. Third-party cookies, or “tracking cookies,” generally come from third-party advertising websites. 

Magic Cookies vs. HTTP Cookies 

Although cookies generally function the same, there are technically two different types of cookies. Magic cookies refer to packets of information that are sent and received without changes. Historically, this would be used to log in to a computer database system, such as an internal business  network. This concept predates the modern cookie we use today. 

HTTP cookies are a repurposed version of the magic cookie built for internet browsing and managing online experiences. HTTP cookies help web developers give you more personalized, convenient website experiences. They allow sites to remember you, your website logins, and shopping carts so you can pick back up where you left off from your last visit. However, cybercriminals can manipulate HTTP cookies to spy on your online activity and steal your personal information. 

What Is Cookie Hijacking?  

Cookie hijacking (also known as session hijacking) is typically initiated when a cybercriminal sends you a fake login page. If you click the fake link, the thief can steal the cookie and capture anything you type while on the fraudulent website. Like a phishing attack, cookie hijacking allows a cybercriminal to steal personal information like usernames, passwords, and other important data held within the cookie. If you enter your information while on the fake website, the criminal can then put that cookie in their browser and impersonate you online. They may even change your credentials, locking you out of your account.  

Sometimes, criminals initiate cookie hijacking attacks without a fake link. If you’re browsing on an unsecured, public Wi-Fi connection, hackers can easily steal your data that’s traveling through the connection. This can happen even if the site is secure and your username and password are encrypted. 

Can Cookies Compromise Your Browser Security?  

Because the data in cookies doesn’t change, cookies themselves aren’t harmful. They can’t infect computers with viruses or malware. But if your cookies are hijacked as part of a cyberattack, a criminal could gain access to your browsing history and use cookies as the key to enter your locked accounts. For example, a hacker may steal your identity or confidential company information, purchase items in your online shopping carts, or loot your bank account.  

Tips for a More Secure Browsing Experience 

Preventing cookie hijacking attacks can allow you to browse the internet with greater peace of mind. Follow these tips to not only safeguard your personal information but to also enhance your browsing experience:  

Clean out the cookie jar  

Make it a habit to clear your cookie cache regularly to prevent cookie overload, which could slow your search speeds. Also, almost every browser has the option to enable/disable cookies on your computer. So if you don’t want them at all, your browser’s support section can walk you through how to disable them. 

Turn off autofill features 

Although it’s convenient to not have to re-type your credentials into a website you frequently visit, autofill features could make it easier for a criminal to extract your data with cookie hijacking. Plus, autofill is risky if your physical device falls into the wrong hands. To browse more securely without having to constantly reenter your passwords, use a password manager like McAfee True Key. True Key makes it so you only have to remember one master password, and it encrypts the rest in a vault protected by one of the most secure encryption algorithms available. 

Opt into multi-factor authentication 

Strong, unique passwords for each of your accounts, updated regularly, offer ample protection against hackers. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) adds yet another layer of security by double-checking your identity beyond your username and password, usually with a texted or emailed code. When your accounts offer MFA, always opt in. 

Connect to a virtual private network (VPN) 

Criminals can hijack your cookies if you’re browsing on an unsecured, public Wi-Fi connection. To prevent a criminal from swiping your data, use a virtual private network (VPN), a service that protects your data and privacy online. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel that makes you anonymous by masking your IP address while connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots. This is a great way to shield your information from online spies while you’re banking, shopping, or handling any kind of sensitive information online. 

Use antivirus software 

McAfee LiveSafe™ is an antivirus solution that protects your computer and mobile devices from suspicious web cookies by: 

  • Allowing you to keep your online passwords (which are often stored in cookies) in one secure location. 
  • Warning you of suspicious links, keeping potentially harmful cookies off your device. 
  • Protecting you against viruses and malware. 
  • Blocking spam and emails that could lead to sites containing dangerous cookies.