News from the Internet

Volume 11 (5) September/October 1997

Is Someone Watching You??

If you are a regular user of the Internet you will undoubtedly have received junk e-mail from companies advertising their products or services. This is becoming a major problem on the Internet. Companies are buying mailing lists and using these to advertise. Very often this mailing is not a random process but targeted and may be based on your browsing habits on the Internet. Information is collected about you as you surf the Internet and visit various web sites. Many web sites now record information such as where you are connecting from, how often you visit that site, and also which particular pages you view. Thus it is possible to build up a profile of your Internet usage. It is even possible to obtain your e-mail address from your browser settings. One way of getting onto mailing lists is by signing guestbooks at web sites. Many sites will sell these mailing lists to other organisations. At PharmWeb we maintain approximately 100 mailing lists, however, user information (names, e-mail lists etc.) are treated in confidence and not passed on to any third parties. It is advisable not to disclose personal information unless you are certain that it will not be misused.

The way web sites often monitor your browsing habits is to use cookies. A cookie is a small file on your computer which a web site can use to store a small amount of information and which will identify you each time you visit that web site. This is how your usage patterns can be monitored. Cookies can often be very useful, for example, they can be used identify the type of information you prefer on a particular web site so that each time you visit you are directed to that information automatically.

One way of reducing junk e-mail is to prevent web sites from obtaining information about you. One solution is to use a program that can either automatically erase your cookie file, or selectively maintain cookies from certain web sites. If you persistently receive junk e-mail, it is worth reporting it to your Internet provider who may be able to prevent further messages.

Many organisations monitor the Internet usage of their employees and using appropriate software it is possible to monitor the e-mail sent and received in addition to web sites visited. These are issues of privacy that will obviously have to be addressed in the future. Certain countries have strict privacy laws which prevent this sort of eavesdropping where as the law in other countries (e.g. the USA) enable employers to freely monitor e-mail and Internet usage.

As usual, if you have found any interesting sites on the Internet that we have not listed on PharmWeb and that may be of interest to the pharmacy community, please let us know.

Dr. A. D'Emanuele


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