Website Tracking and Cookies
There has been a lot of talk in the news about the EU Cookie Directive. This piece of legislation particularly covers tracking cookies, which are little files stored on your computer, that store information about pages you have visited on particular websites or adverts that have been displayed to you on a number of different websites.
This page talks about the cookies and tracking that takes place on our sites and what you can do to help you manage your online presence.
Cookies are used for many reasons, but most fall in to the following types:
- Site preferences - Have you ever been to a site that "remembers" you have previously logged in to it and displays information relevant to you. Examples of this would be: BBC website keeping your postcode for local weather, Amazon offering suggestions of products based on things you have previous bought / looked at and Council sites that remember you prefer a larger text size or a different colour scheme (such as high contrast). These are typically limited to only the website that you are currently on.
- Sessions - A lot of different web sites use sessions to associate your clicks to processes in the back end systems (databases). These are used to make sure you get the correct data from the system and not someone else's! These will usually delete themselves (or become useless) the minute your web browser (Internet Explorer, Opera, Firefox, Chrome or Safari mostly) is closed. These are the most common type of cookies are do not track you in anyway, they only help the web system return the correct information on this current site. They are not usable for any other website.
- Tracking - When you first visit a website that has tracking enabled (such as Google Analytics, but others are available) a cookie will be produced for that site and for that instance of your connection. The difference between these and session cookies is that these can remain on your system (called "persistent") even after you have closed your browser. These cookies will allow the analytics package to collect things like browser name, screen resolution, location, etc and relate them to a session on a site. When a cookie stays on your machine then the next time you visit the site it will remember you. From this the analytics can work out things like how many pages have been viewed and how many people are revisiting the site. These cookies usually only relate to a particular website or family of websites.
- Advertising - Most, but not all, websites run some kind of advertising. There are a number of companies that look after website adverts, Google AdWords probably being the most well known. In themselves they serve a purpose and are harmless, if sometimes a little irritating (depending on the size and position of the advert of course). The issue that privacy campaigners have with them is that, while they are mainly used for making sure you see a range of different adverts, because they are used by so many different sites, all tied to the same unique id on your computer, the advertising companies can quickly build up a profile of the sorts of sites you visit and then target the adverts to those markets. It is considered as intrusive as putting a tracker on your car without your knowing and following where you go.
The EU Cookie Directive states that any cookies that are not "required" for the working of a website (so typically tracking and advertising cookies) must only be created after the site has explicitly explained what the cookie is to be used for and you have given your permission for them to create it. This legislation is only enforceable for sites run for European Union companies / organisations.
- "PHPSESSID" is created by our web server, that allows the correct information to be sent to the correct person.
- "PastMember" is created by our Content Management System, but is not used anywhere and should contain no information.
- "fullSite" is created by our Content Management System to handle if you are using a Desktop or Mobile browser.
- "fcspersistslider1" is created by the Featured Content slider to remember what the last content seen was, so when you return you see the next slide in the list. If this was blocked then you would always see the first one first.
- "_utma", "_utmz", "_ga" and "_gat" are used by Google Analytics.
Tracking on our website
When using our website your visit is logged using a tracking service, provided by Google. We capture things like your screen resolution, the browser you are using, the pages you visit and approximately how long you spend on our site. Nothing we collect can be used to identify you directly, nor would we want to. Our aims for our tracking analytics is to find out what our most popular pages are, how many pages are being visited and what technical things we need to concentrate on (such as screen width for website design or making sure our site works properly on mobile devices).
Reducing the amount of information you give out
Obviously a simple solution to this problem would be to disable cookies in your browser, but then most of the world wide web would stop working for you! We are not saying cookies are a bad thing, but instead you should be aware of what your browser is telling people about you and what you look at. There are a number of things you can do to make sure that your online behaviour is as sheltered as possible:
- Regularly empty your browsing history, including your cookies. The side-effect of this is, though, that any website you have already logged into will "forget" you and you will need to login again on those sites. How this is done is different for the browser you use and the operating system you use (Windows, OSX, Linux, iOS, Android etc) but each application should have instructions on how to do this on their website / help system.
- Utilise a private mode on your browser. With private mode all your visiting information is destroyed the minute you close either the current tab or the browser. It also restricts what information is sent to web sites, therefore sending less information in the first place. Most browsers have an option for this. In Internet Explorer it is called "InPrivate browsing" (in version 8 and 9), in Opera it is "New Private Tab", in Firefox it is "Start Private Browsing", Chrome has "New incognito window" (found under the menu icon) and Safari has "Private browsing".
Please remember that this advice goes for mobile devices as well.