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The Office of Management and Budget is considering reversing a nine-year ban on using "cookies" to track users' preferences and interests on federal Web sites.
The information in cookies can tell a lot about a user's preferences and habits on the Internet. Cookies can store information that contains things spanning from what kind of products you buy, to how many times you have visited a particular web site (4). For example, a user can visit www.weather.com and put in College park's zip code to get the weather daily. Later on in the week, that user can go to the site, and it will automatically take the user to College Park's weather without putting in his or her zip code.
Another way, in which cookies are used in websites, is to gather information from your perusing of the various websites without user knowledge. Usually, cookies are left on a computer without informing the user that personal information may be stored there. Websites then use these cookies to customize the banner advertisements, that are prevalent on many websites today, to your particular interests. This is done in hopes of generating business for the advertiser or revenue for the website.
Another problem is one of privacy. Many users like the internet for its anonymity. The idea that an individual or organization could actually be tracking where they are going and what sites they are visiting really bothers some users. The fact that some of this tracking information could be used for the purpose of making money, by targeting advertising for instance, also concerns some users. There have also been incidents where government websites are found to be using cookies. Although these cookies may not be used to track visitors, the fact that the government could use this method to track users, concerns many privacy activists (13).
Particular privacy concerns may be raised when uses of web technology can track the activities of users over time and across different web sites. These concerns are especially great where individuals who have come to government web sites do not have clear and conspicuous notice of any such tracking activities. "Cookies" -- small bits of software that are placed on a web user's hard drive -- are a principal example of current web technology that can be used in this way.
Because of the unique laws and traditions about government access to citizens' personal information, the presumption should be that "cookies" will not be used at Federal web sites. Under this new Federal policy, "cookies" should not be used at Federal web sites, or by contractors when operating web sites on behalf of agencies, unless, in addition to clear and conspicuous notice, the following conditions are met: a compelling need to gather the data on the site; appropriate and publicly disclosed privacy safeguards for handling of information derived from "cookies"; and personal approval by the head of the agency. In addition, it is federal policy that all Federal web sites and contractors when operating on behalf of agencies shall comply with the standards set forth in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 with respect to the collection of personal information online at web sites directed to children.