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3.2 Cookies

A cookie is a small data file, sent from a website and stored in the computer user’s browser. A cookie file is usually automatically installed when an individual first visits a website. The cookie is used to tell a website operator when that person revisits the site. Cookies do not give the website operator any information about that person’s identity (e.g. name, address, telephone number), unless the person accessing the site has already given it to the operator.

Theoretically, the only information an organisation can put in their cookie file is the information given to them. Amazon’s files probably contain information about what items someone bought, their address, credit card information, and maybe some information about what items they looked at but didn’t buy, i.e. any information they have gathered from the user’s activity on their website. Amazon does not, therefore, know how old the user is or the colour of their hair, since that information was not given to them.

Web advertising companies use cookies to collect information about computer users, so that they can send them targeted advertisements. They achieve this by having their member sites show advertisements that come from their web domain. Ultimately, the advertisement fools the users’ web browser into believing it is the same site, because it is the same organisation providing advertisements. This has been viewed as both beneficial and intrusive. It can provide tailored, relevant information for the user but some people feel that tracking their activities is unacceptable.

Users are able to opt-out of the use of cookies, but it isn’t possible to opt-out of IP addressed-based tracking. An Internet Protocol (IP) address is a numerical code attached to each device connected to the internet. This can allow the tracking of devices and device interactions back to countries, cities and organisations depending on how the device is registered.

Activity 3

Timing: Timing: 5 minutes

Which of the following is the most effective way to protect your personal information?

a. 

Encrypting transactions containing sensitive data.


b. 

Never going online at all.


c. 

Opting out of accepting cookies.


d. 

Using a Virtual Private Network to disguise your IP address.


The correct answer is b.

b. 

Correct! It would be a drastic measure, but a very effective way to protect your information is never to go online at all. (Note we do not recommend this course of action!) It is also important to note that, even if you never personally access the internet, records and information about you is still likely to appear online through other people and organisations.