Check cookies, help FirstGov, get a life

Hooray for OMB. The June 22 memorandum issued by the Office of Management and Budget's director, Jacob Lew, regarding privacy policies and data collection on federal World Wide Web sites is on target. Regarding cookies, the memo notes concern by the public when federal Web sites track the activities of users when the site does not have a conspicuous notice about such recording.

OMB guidance of June 2, 1999, allowed agencies to use cookies or other automatic means of collection if clear notice was given. The year-later memorandum says cookies should not be used on federal Web sites. Cookies can be used if three conditions are met:

    1. A compelling need exists to gather such data on the Web site.

    2. The Web site appropriately and publicly discloses privacy safeguards for handling information derived from cookies.

    3. Use of cookies has been personally approved by the head of the agency. (When OMB refers to agency, it means department.)

To address such demands, I recommend that federal Web managers do the following:

    * Thoroughly document the need to use cookies.

    * Check your Web site's notice to users to make sure the statement addresses the handling of the information gathered and is not just a notice that cookies or other such systems are being used.

    * Make sure that agency approval is on file.

WebGov, a.k.a. FirstGov.gov

The governmentwide portal, now known as FirstGov, is due in the fall and will link visitors to information and services posted on federal Web sites. FirstGov is a complicated undertaking and should prove to be valuable to the public.

Bob Maslyn, the General Services Administration's manager for FirstGov, recently noted two key ways the Webmaster community could help the portal project:

* Place meta tag information on home pages. Description content and keyword content should be typed in beneath the title code area. This will help the FirstGov spider — and for that matter, all search engine spiders — locate and display your site's information.

* Register your agency's Web site when the FirstGov portal goes online.

Real vs. virtual life

The July 2000 issue of American Demographic magazine describes how "the wonders of wireless technology have connected us even more to our jobs. Cell phones, e-mail, laptops — tools that promised us freedom from the cubicle — now take us hostage on behalf of the boss."

Another publication describes the 27 technical skills needed by Webmasters. My thought while reading it was that programmers need even more skills to use a shipload of software.

There is so much to learn that specialization is the only answer to staying afloat. In that sense, IT is beginning to take the track of professions such as medicine and law. The ocean of knowledge and skills is so vast that the only way to be successful is to narrow one's focus to a few specialties.

Trying to keep fully informed about all developments can root you in front of a monitor or attached to electronic devices. A friend who works at a computer all day recently told me that after work he goes home and plays computer games. Really.

Virtual life can sap your energy and awareness of the real stuff.

Have you spent time with family or friends? Have you talked with them recently for more than two sentences? Been walking in Old Town Alexandria or hiked up Sugarloaf Mountain? Or exercised recently, or done the thousand and one things that make life real and enjoyable?

This weekend, shut down the computer, turn off the cell phone, do something outside and tell a friend about it. There's real life out there. Go get it. Make it one of your first priorities. You might last longer in the business of life.

—Powell is the Agriculture Department's Internet and intranet Webmaster.

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