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When you go to a Web site for information, it’s a two-way process. Government Web sites, as well as commercial Web sites, routinely place small files on your computer hard drive called “cookies” that send information about who you are, when you visited and what you did, says Mitchell Pearlman, executive director of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission. Stated “privacy policies” have to be taken on faith — and maybe with a grain of salt. “There’s no enforcement power,” he says. For the moment, technical advances have raced ahead of legal standards of what is, and what is not, an invasion of privacy — or public information. Pearlman says it’s an open question whether the data that state Web sites gather through cookies would be subject to an FOI request: “We have no cases, and we have no precedent on it. So who knows what the situation would be?” he says. Some informal enforcement is taking place. Last month Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal sent letters to three Connecticut Web sites — CD Universe.com, in Wallingford; netmarket.com, in Stamford; and insure.com, in West Hartford. The AG said the companies don’t disclose on their Web sites privacy policies that third parties may place cookies on users’ computers. The policies did not disclose that this can allow universal resource locators to be transmitted “and these URLs may include specific, private information related to a consumer’s experience on a web site.” Without conceding any wrongdoing, netmarket lawyer Todd H. Siegel said that netmarket plans to completely comply with Blumenthal’s concerns by Oct. 15. Currently CD Universe, which is part of E-Universe, discloses as part of a four-page privacy policy that “third party affiliates may, during the course of your visit to our site, store ‘cookies’ on your computer.” It adds that a site visitor can stop or restrict cookies by adjusting the preferences of the visitor’s Web browser. At insure.com, which has carried the Trust-E privacy seal for two years, Amy Danise is the vice president of editorial for the Web site. She says that updating the disclosure policy only took “about 15 minutes.” As a resource for information about insurance, she said, “a big part of our business is explaining consumers’ rights.” While cookies can pose privacy concerns, they also make e-commerce work smoothly. “For example, cookies keep track of what’s in your shopping cart at Amazon,” Danise notes. POLICY PROTOTYPE Pearlman, who is the FOIC’s top lawyer, says that privacy policy shapes public information policy. He’s working on a draft of privacy policy for the state’s “Connect” Web sites, which currently says: “Like many other Web sites, Connect uses cookies to identify users and keep track of some of their activities on our Web site. … Some Connect cookies are permanent. They record your name, but not your password, and some tracking information for security purposes. Some Connect cookies are temporary. They keep track of what you are doing on some places on our Web site, but they expire when you leave. None of your personal financial information is ever recorded in the cookie. No other Web site can read a cookie that Connect sets.” Pearlman says the state plans to make good on that last promise by using encryption so that “unless they’re smart enough to break it, [hackers] can’t get into our cookies to find your cookies.” For the moment, there’s no specific check or penalty to stop a rogue employee or meddling boss from taking an unauthorized peek, he says. “Our privacy policy is to tell you what we use cookies for, what we will not use cookies for,” he says merrily. “So if we put this on the Web site, do you believe us?”

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