Potomac News Online | City of Manassas Web site offers privacy to users

Manassas resident Michele Cook hasn’t been able to use her computer for weeks, and she blames it on the cookies.

“Cookies just totally screwed up my whole system,” Cook said.

Fortunately for residents like Cook, the City of Manassas has a no-cookie policy for the city Web page. Information Technology Director Larry Bates said the city has adopted a new privacy policy, which includes a notice on the site, https://www.manassascity.org, to alert residents exactly what information the city collects from site visitors.

A “cookie” is a file stored on a computer that contains special information about the user, usually accessed when the computer connects to a Web site.

“The cookie can literally pull any kind of information … type of software, a local address, phone number, based on information stored in the computer’s registry.” Bates said. “The city has adopted the new policy to clarify the information we are collecting.”

Resident comments and a state guideline prompted this initiative. Bates said cookies weren’t used initially, at least since he was hired 20 months ago. But he said residents should be aware of this fact, since some have spoken out against them.

“A cookie can personalize a visit, but it can also pull information about the user back to the person who placed the cookie, and the user won’t know,” Bates said. “We don’t have a need to place a cookie, nor do we want to.”

A contact e-mail address is also part of the city’s Internet privacy policy, which enables residents to ask questions about exactly what they’re telling the city with their keystrokes and mouse clicks.

Aside from any information typed into a form, the city monitors how many people visit the site and each of its areas, and what time these visits occur. They can also determine what type of Internet service provider the visitor is using, but that’s where the monitoring stops.

The information collected offers general feedback to improve the site. The city also tries to post information on the site pertaining to residents, so questions can be answered at any time without having to make a call to busy city employees.

Manassas resident James Ham used the city site before he moved to the area, and he appreciates the policy.

“Anything that protects privacy on the Internet, I am all for,” Ham said.

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