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Firefox Help:  Firefox's Cookie Options

Table of contents:
- What are cookies and what do they do?
- Firefox's Cookie Options
- Firefox's Cookie Manager
- Firefox's Cookie Exceptions Dialog
- Advanced cookie options using 'about:config'

People have various reasons for choosing Firefox, be it that they want to try a "different" browser, they like Firefox's features such as tabbed browsing or because they appreciate Firefox's privacy and security features such as the Cookie Manager, encryption of saved data,  and much more.

Firefox and Mozilla are in my opinion very secure browsers, even in their "out of the box" state. Still, with the right settings, you can make them even better at preserving your privacy and security while you are surfing the Net. This tutorial will show you how to choose the right settings for cookies.
Please note that there probably is not such a thing as perfect security, i.e. there may be security-related bugs that have not yet been discovered. Plus, safe use of the internet is always also the individual user's responsibility.

Note: If you are using the Mozilla Suite or Netscape 7.x, please refer to the Privacy and Security Tutorial. Their cookie options (among other things) are covered there.

Keeping the Cookie Monster in check

What are cookies and what do they do?

Cookies are small bits of information your browser remembers for a web site. Your browser saves your cookies in a text file on your harddrive. Cookies by themselves pose no security risk: They cannot contain a computer virus, nor can they be used to spy on you by reading your harddrive's content. They can be very useful and make surfing the Internet easier when used properly by making sites remember who you are and in some cases what you like. However, some companies use cookies to track you across various websites, thus recording your user behavior. What makes it worse is that often those are companies you never directly dealt with, which means that you neither gave them the permission to track you, nor do you know what you get out of the deal. 
With older browsers such as Internet Explorer 5.x or Netscape 4.x, you only had the choice of either completely disabling cookies, losing their benefits, allowing all cookies or having to say "Yes" or "No" to endless alert windows asking you if site "x" was allowed to set a cookie. Fortunately, newer browsers like Firefox, the Mozilla Suite, Opera 7 and to some degree Internet Explorer 6 give you the option to selectively allow and disallow sites to set cookies.

Firefox saves cookies in a file called cookies.txt, which is part of your Firefox Profile.

Firefox's Cookie Options

Firefox has several cookie-related options that give you control over who can and who cannot set cookies. To access Firefox's cookie options, select Tools -> Options -> Privacy.

Firefox's Cookie options

IMHO, the ideal setting is to check Allow Sites to set cookies and select Ask me every time from the "Keep Cookies" drop-down menu (which is a somewhat confusing placement of this option). This will make you answer "yes" or "no" to quite a few cookie dialogs in the beginning, but with Firefox you only have to do it once per site. Simply make sure Use my choice for all cookies from this site is checked (please see screen shot below).

Firefox's Cookie dialog
Firefox is asking if a site can set a cookie

There are several aditional alternatives, depending how you surf the web:
  • If you don't visit sites that need to remember who you are, or if you don't care for that feature, but you visit sites who only allow you to enter with cookies enabled, check Allow sites to set cookies and select until I close Firefox.
    This way, Firefox will accept all cookies but they are automatically deleted once your session is over (i.e. you close Firefox).
  • As an alternative to the general recommendation, you can also check for the originating website only. This should work in most cases and especially with larger sites, but it may not work properly with all sites.

Firefox's Cookie Manager

Firefox's cookie manager allows you to easily see which sites have already set cookies and what the respective cookie's details are. Please note that cookie name and cookie content don't usually convei much useful (to you, the user) information.

Opening Firefox's Cookie Manager
Opening Firefox' Cookie Manager

Open Firefox'sCookie Manager by clicking on the View Cookies button, which will show you all cookies that are currently set.

Another advantage of Firefox's Cookie Manager is that it allows you to easily remove cookies that you do not want (e.g. tracking cookies from advertisers) either temporarily, i.e. until they are set again, or permanently, i.e. Firefox will block the respective cookie(s) in the future.

Firefox's Cookie Manager
Firefox cookie manager

To remove a cookie, select it from the 'Stored Cookies' list in Cookie Manager and click on the Remove Cookie button. If you also check  Don't allow sites that set removed cookies to set future cookies Firefox will automatically block cookies from that site/domain.

Note 1: This setting only applies to the sites whose cookies were removed while this option was checked.
Note 2: It is possible to mark multiple sites while holding down the Shift or Ctrl key.

Firefox's Cookie Exceptions (cookie sites) dialog

If you have accidentally blocked or allowed cookies from a site, you can easily change that by using Firefox's Cookie Exceptions dialog.
To configure site permissions ("Cookie sites") in Firefox, i.e. to (un-) block cookies for specific sites, click on the Exceptions button.
Opening Firefox's Cookie sites dialog

This will open Firefox's site permissions dialog. To add a site, simply enter the site's URL (address) into the field that has been marked in orange.
Adding a cookie site in Firefox

Then select:

Block - to block the specified site from setting cookies
Allow for session - to allow cookies from the specified site for a session only, i.e. Firefox will delete these cookies when you close the program.
Allow - to allow all cookies from the specified site.

If you want to remove a site from the list, select it and click on Remove Site. If you want to delete the entire cookie sites list, simply click on Remove all Sites.

Advanced Cookie options using 'about:config'

If you previously used the Mozilla Suite or Netscape 7, you may miss a few cookie options. These additional options are still available for Firefox, they can, however, only be accessed using 'about:config'. Please note that I have not verified if these options still work for Firefox, but they should.

The following advanced cookie options are available:

Accept cookies for x number of days (cookie lifetime policy) - this option will make Firefox keep all cookies for a defined number of days. Cookies that are older than this will automatically be deleted. To activate this option, edit the following preferences:
network.cookie.lifetimePolicy - set this to 3. In addition, set network.cookie.lifetime.days to the number of days you want cookies to be kept for.

Allow cookies based on privacy (P3P) settings - this option will make Firefox automatically decide whether to accept a cookie or not based on the site's P3P privacy policy. If third-party sites (like e.g. advertising banners) want to set cookies, their privacy policies are also taken into account. To activate this preference, edit the following preferences:
network.cookie.cookieBehavior - set this preference to 3. To set the privacy level, change
network.cookie.p3plevel / network.cookie.p3p to:
0 / afafaaaa for low, 1 / ffffaaaa for medium or 2 / frfradaa for high.

Please see the screenshot of Netscape 7's P3P cookie preferences dialog below for more information:

Netscape 7's P3P cookie preferences dialog

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