Leaving cookie crumbs in cyberspace

1 September 2012

Are you an unknowing Hansel or Gretel, leaving a trail of ‘breadcrumbs’ behind you as you wend your way through the internet? KATHY HOLLOWAY explains cookies.

How do you track where you have been as you click from one fabulously interesting site to the next on the net?

You are probably aware of the useful history facility provided for your use by two common browsers - Firefox and Explorer. You can check here where you (or others) have been surfing.

However, as you gaily embark upon your surfing odyssey, spare a thought for the ‘breadcrumb’ trail you may be leaving behind – that trail may not only track where you have been but also predict where you are most likely to go. I refer to ‘cookie’ technology.

What is a cookie? The following outline of the function of cookies was obtained from a very useful site: www.cookiecentral.com. A cookie is a small piece of information about you (actually, about your computer – the IP or internet protocol address). A cookie is a small file that a web server automatically sends to your computer when you browse certain web sites. Cookies are stored as text files on your hard drive, so servers can access them when you return to web sites you’ve visited before. To check out your cookie files in Internet Explorer, go to the Tools button on your browser and select Internet Options and Settings on the Temporary Internet files section. Clicking on View files will let you know what is stored there for access by sites when you visit – you will note that cookies are designed to expire within varying times – however, the latest technology allows cookies to be stored until 2037. Prepare to be amazed at the number of files that you store unknowingly!

For other browsers, use the help function to find the cookie files.

But wait! Cookies are not all bad – they contain information that identifies each user, for example: login or username, passwords, shopping cart information, preferences, and so on. When a user revisits a web site, his or her computer automatically ‘serves up’ the cookie, which establishes the user’s identity, thus eliminating the need for you to re-enter the information. Basically, the server needs to know this information in order for the web site to work correctly, and the information is nothing more than a string of letters and numbers.

However, within the internet industry, advertisers are able to track your browsing and buying habits using cookies, unless your privacy settings exclude this. In this realm, cookie technology enables advertisers to target ad banners based on what you’ve said your interests are – ever notice how targeted the Google ads become? Cookies allow sites to tailor their appearance to suit a user’s established preferences. It’s a double-edged sword for many people because on the one hand, it’s efficient and pertinent in that you only see ads about what you’re interested in. On the other hand, it involves actually ‘tracking’ and ‘following’ where you go and what you click on – a disturbing thought for some. Further information as to how to restrict cookie collection is best obtained at sites like

http://download.cnet.com/8301-2007_4-57380680-12/does-your-browser-feed-the-cookie-monster-or-starve-it

The bottom line is that you, as the user, should find the web portals and online services that suit your needs and only sign up with a select few. In New Zealand, privacy concerns for local e-commerce are governed by legislation that does not apply to international companies. A recent forum in Wellington – Think Big? Privacy in the Age of Big Data – warned of our generally relaxed approach to the privacy of our own information. Make a habit of checking out privacy policies on the sites that you visit and check your own browser’s privacy settings. Further information can be accessed here

http://privacy.org.nz/protect-yourself-online/#browsing. Remember that with awareness comes choice – you can take control of your trail in cyberspace.

Check these out

My Hospitals

http://www.myhospitals.gov.au

Increasingly, the internet is being used by consumers to rate their experiences of services received from trades professionals, retailers, and the hospitality sector. This is now possible for consumers of the health care sector, and internationally, patients are using the internet to research their local hospitals, doctors, and residential care facilities. In Ireland (USA and Canada also) there is a Rate My Hospital (www.ratemyhospital.ie) website, where patients can rate all parts of their hospital experience. In contrast, there is no patient involvement as yet in this Australian site, launched this year, but it marks an interesting government initiative to inform the community about their hospitals.

The website provides information about hospital services, patient admissions, waiting times for elective surgery and emergency department care, measures of safety and quality (hand hygiene and staph. aureus rates), cancer services, and hospital accreditation. The website also provides comparisons to national public hospital performance statistics on waiting times for elective surgery and emergency department care. [Accessed 19 August 2012 and last updated 2012].

BMC Nursing – free access journal

http://www.biomedcentral.com/bmcnurs

BioMed Central is an independent publishing house committed to providing immediate open access to peer-reviewed research, a growing area for professional and clinical journals. BMC Nursing is an open access journal publishing original peer-reviewed research articles in all aspects of nursing research, training, education, and practise that has been published since 2002. The journal is included in PubMed and all major bibliographic databases. The editorial board is comprised of esteemed nurse scholars from Australia, USA, Canada and the UK – this is a useful avenue for publication. [Accessed 19 August 2012 and last updated 2012].

Dr Kathy Holloway is dean of the Faculty of Health at Whitireia Community Polytechnic.