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What does it mean when a site says they "receive and store certain information"?


Some e-merchants have a clause saying they “receive and store certain information whenever you download web pages” – do they means any web pages or just their own and what can you do to prevent it?

If they’re legitimate, it’d be just their own. Obviously if they’re malicious and you’re not careful they could install spyware, and all bets are off. But by now I’m certainly you’re already doing all the right things to stay safe, so I’ll assume you’re only visiting legitimate e-commerce sites.

And it’s not just e-commerce. Guess what? When you visit Ask Leo!, I also “receive and store certain information whenever you download web pages”.

It’s really just a part of how the web works.

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Now the statement “certain information” is vague and could mean anything.

There’s the obvious stuff. For example when you order from an e-commerce site, you’re giving them your information to process the other. They “receive and store” that “certain information” as a part of processing and fulfilling your transaction. The shouldn’t come as any surprise; it’s information you explicitly gave them.

The only way to avoid it is to not do business on the internet. To me that seems exceptionally extreme. Personally I’m happy letting a number of reputable e-commerce sites “receive and store certain information” about me as part of the process of my doing business with them. I’ve certainly never been harmed by it, and in fact have only benefited from their services.

But you should know that even visiting a web site – any web site – provides that site with “certain information”.

When you visit a site the web server receives the following information:

  • The URL of the page on the site you’ve requested to see. Hopefully this is obvious; the server needs to know what it is you want to look at.
  • Your internet IP address. The web server needs to know where to send the information that you’ve requested. (Note that if you’re behind a NAT router, this is the internet IP address of the router, not your computer’s IP address.)
  • If you clicked on a link to get to a page, then the URL of the page containing that link may be included as what’s called the “referrer”. Basically this tells the web server what page you were on that had the link that got you to the page you requested. If there is no “referring page” then nothing is sent.
  • The contents of any cookies that this web site placed on your machine from any prior visits. Not all sites use cookies, so there may be nothing to send.

It’s important to note that all of this is how the web works. There’s no avoiding it. You can obfuscate the information presented by using an anonymization service if you’re particularly paranoid, but the information is presented to the web server regardless.

Now what happens to all that information is up to the web site owner.

On Ask Leo! my server logs most of that information, and I keep those logs. I use them, for example, to see which pages on Ask Leo! get the most traffic (from the URLs requested), which countries send me the most visitors (from the IP addresses), and which sites link to me (from the Referrer).

Cookies are used in two ways on Ask Leo! Most articles have a “remember me” option when placing a comment; you are “remembered” by using cookies to store your information on your machine. Cookies are also used by a third party add-on package, Google Analytics, which gives me some advanced traffic analysis – very similar to the reports I get based only on my server logs. As another example, on my wife’s
retail site I use it as a convenience to fill in sales forms with information customers may have entered before. That way they don’t have to retype everything each time.

I can track individual visits by IP address, but as I’ve discussed many times before, there’s no way to tell who an IP address represents or specifically where they are.

The data presented to the web server on each page request is all information that a site owner can use to more properly target his audience, analyze his performance, and/or provide additional functionality to his site visitors.

So the bottom line is that for legitimate websites what might be refereed to as “certain information” comes from two places: the information that’s provided to servers as part of how the web works, and the information that you explicitly give to a web site.

Should you be concerned?

No. Not in my opinion.

I keep using the phrase “legitimate web sites”, but just as in the real world, as long as you are dealing with reputable sites and vendors by and large you have nothing to be concerned about. There are certainly malicious vendors in the real world, and of course malicious sites on the internet – those are not what I’m talking about. Major retailers and reputable e-commerce sites from companies you recognize are typically quite legitimate and above board. They succeed by providing the services they advertise, not by trying to be underhanded or stealing your information and spying on you.

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3 comments on “What does it mean when a site says they "receive and store certain information"?”

  1. FYI – your comment “I don’t use cookies so there’s nothing to track there” isn’t entirely accurate.

    While you may not be using them for anything, your site is generating four cookie requests:

    __utma (expires in 2036)
    __utmb (expires in 5-1/2 hours)
    __utmc (session only)
    __utmz (expires in 6 months)

    (Also, the comment posting obviously generates some cookies if you select “remember me”.)

  2. I stand corrected. I do use cookies to allow you to hit “remember me”. Obviously I’m not paying attention to them myself :-).

    The _u… cookies are Google Analytics, which they use to present me much of the same data that I’d see in my web server logs, only with a little more analysis.

    I’ll update the article. Thanks for the catch.


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