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Source: Calgary Herald

Posted on July 27, 2001

      It's not just Big Brother that's watching these days.

      Scary stories of governments collecting information about your address, age, job, income and who knows what else are always in the news.

      There is no real need for them to have it, they just collect for the sake of collecting; storing information away for that proverbial rainy day.

      This sort of intrusion gets under most people's skin. We don't like having someone know our personal details. Apart from it being an infringement on our space, having someone know our innermost secrets is just plain creepy.

      Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens on the Internet every day.

      If you surf the Web without taking precautions, people out there will know your secrets. In fact, many companies exist for the sole purpose of collecting personal information to market to advertisers and retailers.

      It's like a game of hide-and-seek. You surf the Web and advertisers try to find you. At the end of the game, you win if you manage to stay hidden and they win if they find out your personal information and get their ads onto your computer.

      Sounds strange right? However, once that information is given out, it is grabbed and stored. It is unlikely that this information will ever be used to overtly interrupt or bother you. But you never know. So where does this information come from?

      Have you ever wondered how a Web-based search engine "knew" to send an ad for the same information that you were searching for? Never noticed? Try searching for Chevy or Ford and look at the banner ads which appear alongside your search results. I guarantee that you will get ads trying to sell you a vehicle almost every time.

      Banner ads are targeted to your search query and when you click on send, the ad companies can store the query, the time you make the query, the page you made the query from, your Internet service provider and more. How do they manage this? Cookies.

      So what is a cookie and how is it used to gather personal information?

      A cookie is a very small text file installed on your computer by a Web server (i.e. the computer that runs a Web site). Cookies contain information about your surfing habits; hold user identifications, shopping cart information, user preferences, or other information about you and your computer.

      Alone, they are harmless. Cookies cannot read or erase your hard drive or infect your computer with a virus. However, when the computer that sent them locates them on your hard drive, cookies will spit back whatever information they hold.

      Now stop for a second and think about this information; remember that the only thing that can make it dangerous is you. I am sure that many out there have filled in an application form for an online prize, an e-mail account, or something similar. Did you give them your name, address, postal code, phone number? If you did, then a tracking network, very likely has you in its database.

      As you surf the Net, this information grows, helping advertisers to define their knowledge of your surfing habits.

      Cookies are helpful in that some of the information they hold allows your computer to be automatically recognized when you log onto a Web site. When you arrive at the site, your user I.D. is loaded, or your shopping preferences are remembered. Without cookies, this could not happen.

      However, it is this helpful aspect of cookies, the storing of information, which allows them to be misused and pushed into the realm of privacy infringements.

      To many, this will sound like the stuff of black helicopters and conspiracy theories, but one must remember that the collecting and selling of information is how some Web-based businesses make money.

      Advertising companies make deals with various Internet companies regarding the placement of cookies. For example, one popular search engine currently has "relationships" with 33 different network advertisers.

      Interestingly, that search engine also notes that to keep its advertiser's cookies off of your computer, you need to "visit each ad network's Web site individually and opt out (if they offer this capability)."

      Realistically, very few people have the time to explore 33 different corporate Web sites, looking for an often non-existent opt-out option.

      How many have even taken the time to read their search engine's privacy policy?

      So, advertisers pay Web sites to place their cookies, meaning you can have cookies from Web sites that you don't even know you visited.

      So, as you surf, you give out information over the Net.

      This information is then bought and sold by these companies, who add this information to their burgeoning databases, crunch the numbers, and then sell specific information and statistics to clients.

      Now if every Web-site manager were honest and upright, or even aware of what was happening, people would have little to worry about if their data was collected.

      However, as Larry Pryor of the Online Journalism Review noted: "A recent study . . . by . . . researchers at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and . . . Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism found . . . (that of) Web sites that track people's movements online and collect personal information . . . only about 38 per cent bothered to tell their readers what they were doing with this data."

      This is significant because it suggests 62 per cent of the sites that collect information do so without providing warnings to the general public.

      As market forces generally govern the Internet (the international flavor of the Internet makes governmental regulation incomplete and largely ineffective) it is up to the consumers to be aware of what the impacts of the products that they are using.

      The market responded to this challenge with the formation of privacy watchdogs such as TRUSTe.com. These organizations function the same way the Better Business Bureau does, acting as an ombudsman for individuals with e-privacy concerns. While not perfect, these privacy watchdogs can become a formidable foe to e-businesses that defy their published privacy policies. The inclusion of a WebTrust (http://WebTrust.net) or TRUSTe certificate on a business' Web site is becoming a recognized symbol that the business has voluntarily submitted to operate within certain, approved business practices.

      If the fact that people and businesses are tracking your movements on the Web and then storing that information does not bother you, then surf away and enjoy those ads.

      If this tracking makes you uncomfortable, then remember it is up to you to protect yourself out there, and doing so requires a little effort. For those who are interested in protecting themselves search for "cookies" on any good search engine.

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