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Many anti-spyware programs repeatedly report cookie or tracking cookie issues. Are those spyware? Maybe. Maybe not. Some thoughts on what to do.

Why, when I run my anti-spyware programs, do I get the same results week after week? It's always the same tracking cookies and I quarantine them but they never go away. Why bother running these programs if they only find the same junk over and over?

The short answer is because you probably visit the same web sites regularly, and they put those cookies back the next time you visit. Run your anti-spyware program again, and it sees that they've returned, and dutifully reports them.

Some cookies can be identified as "tracking" cookies - cookies that could be used to track your movement around the internet. Personally my reaction is "So?", but some people do care.

But you raise a good point. All these reports are so much noise to many people, and get in the way of real issues when they pop up.

Whether or not cookies are truly spyware is up for debate. Cookies can be used to provide you with useful functionality like remembering who you are when you visit a web site so you don't have to login each time, or so you don't have to re-type all of your personal information each time you fill out a sales form.

Cookies can also be used to track your movements on the internet. The most common case is cookies called "third party" cookies - cookies placed by advertisers on various web sites. But to quote my previous article How do I delete cookies? And just what are cookies, anyway?: "Now before the paranoia kicks in, let's be clear about something - they don't care about you specifically. Sorry, but you're just not that important."

Tracking cookies generate a tremendous volume of information that is processed in aggregate ... meaning that advertisers using them can determine things like "this many people who visit site A also go to site B, so we should beef up our advertising purchase for site B." They're not saying "Oh, look, Leo just visited site A again. And there he goes to site B.". You and I as individuals just aren't that interesting. Analyzed as a group, however, the information can provide interesting trends and information.

The paranoia has a basis in fact, however, since even though it's more work than it's worth, cookies could be used to trace my individual visits across various web sites.

"The fact is that there are many other more serious issues than cookies that anti-spyware programs do catch and resolve."

So, does that make it spyware?

I guess so, but as I said earlier, I really don't care.

So there are various options:

  • Many anti-spyware programs have the option to control what they report on. You might be able to turn off reporting of cookie related issues. This is what I elect to do.

  • In your browser, you can turn off what are called "third party" cookies. This means that when you visit a web site that site will be allowed to use cookies, but advertisers on that site (the third parties) will not.

  • Again in your browser you can turn off cookies completely. No site will be allowed to use cookies. This comes with a high cost, in my opinion: many sites will simply not work, and on other sites you'll have to do by hand much of what the cookies were doing for you - like retyping your information.

You'll note that not running an anti-spyware program was not an option.

The fact is that there are many other more serious issues than cookies that anti-spyware programs do catch and resolve. Things you and I would care about. If you're even a semi-savvy computer user they're infrequent but they can happen. You want that anti-spyware program to be there to catch 'em.

And as always, make sure that your anti-spyware program, like your anti-virus program, is getting regular updates to it's database of malware. That way you're sure to catch the new and latest threats as soon as possible.

Article C2917 - January 31, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

January 31, 2007 9:54 AM

One thing to note on the "reappearing tracking cookies"...

Even though the cookies have come back, they are new cookies. That is, as far as the cookies are concerned, you did some things for a week, and then disappeared off the face ot the net. Then, the next week, a new person came along and did things for a week before disappearing. And so on.

And for an option that wasn't mentioned...

Many anti-spyware and firewall programs can filter cookies as they come in. For example, I have been using SpySweeper for several years. Among other things, they have a "tracking cookie shield" option which blocks the cookies as they come in, rather than waiting for the next sweep to delete them.

Ken Crook
February 4, 2007 1:37 AM

In Internet Explorer you can put unwanted cookies in a list of cookies to block. On IE toolbar select Tools/Internet Options/Privacy/Sites and add the address of the unwanted cookie.

A good program for checking cookies is "Cookie Viewer" from Karen Kenworthy. One of her Karen's Power Tools. It shows the names of all cookies and the address that placed the cookie on your computer. From the list you can delete those cookies you do not want. And then add the senders address to the blocked cookies list on IE to prevent future offending cookies.

February 5, 2007 10:11 AM

If you are using Firefox you can selectively block any cookies. But the best feature is to select "Keep until I close Firefox" under the Privacy tab. You will not be hounded by web sites that "must" set a cookie before it will allow you connection. When you close the browser, all the cookies are wiped clean. If you need one or more cookies for identification at your bank or similar site, their cookie can be selected to remain after the wipe. Simple built in cookie control.

Rondi Phillips
October 4, 2008 7:21 PM

I was so ready to delete ALL my cookies, being the paranoid type, but your answers cleared up a lot for me as to how they make navigating the web easier, less time-consuming, and less physical typing in of information every time you visit a website. You are right, there are far greater concerns surfing the web. Thanks!

Roger Tiedemann
August 25, 2009 7:11 PM

Anti-virus and spyware programs also often have an ignore setting. If you're not bothered by cookies, you can put them in the ignore category when they're found so that you're not bothered by any but ones from new sites.

December 10, 2009 12:14 AM

I use Firefox and have tried to block certain sites from storing cookies, such as AdRevolver. But, the cookies are stored anyway. Asked Firefox about this, no useful reply.

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