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The Monitor's View

Private eyes are watching you (surf the Web)

Commercial tracking software often secretly records where users go on the Internet. If businesses don't set their own clear, simple privacy standards, government may need to step in with a 'do not track' option.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / August 4, 2010

The ease and speed with which people can share information over the Internet is perhaps the marvel of this era. The way they live and work is changing rapidly, posing new opportunities and new hazards.

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One area undergoing massive change is personal privacy. Fluid exchanges of information mean that more knowledge about people’s lives can be shared than they realize or desire. Facebook and Google are two Web giants that have recently faced criticism for playing fast and loose with information about their users.

A significant number of apps – small software applications that users download onto their iPhones or other smart phones – have been shown to be surreptitiously collecting information on their users, such as the person’s location or their list of contacts.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia say they will curtail the use of BlackBerry phones for the opposite reason – their texts and e-mails are encrypted and difficult to intercept and decipher. The UAE claims this privacy feature is a threat to its national security.

The development of computerized data banks – such as those storing credit-card information, medical records, or store “loyalty card” buying habits – continues to erode personal privacy.

Now several US lawmakers and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are raising concerns about the need to better regulate the way that websites, and the advertisers on them, place tracking data on the computers of visitors. Called “cookies,” “beacons,” “pixels,” or just “Web bugs,” these programs operate behind the scenes to record not only which pages are visited on that site but continue to track and report back on the user’s subsequent visits to other sites.

Tracking software, of course, can be useful. It can remember a password, what the user bought earlier on the site, or even the volume setting you like for watching videos there. It also helps websites gather legitimately useful information about how their own site is being used, such as how many pages have been viewed and how many unique visitors have dropped by.

But as The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, as did the Monitor last year, privacy advocates and ordinary citizens alike are becoming alarmed by the amount of information being quietly collected on websites and the lack of consumer awareness of it.

One senator has likened Web tracking to someone following a consumer around a store with a camera and recording everything the person looked at or bought.

The Journal, for example, found that the Web’s top 50 websites place an average of 64 pieces of tracking software on each visitor’s computers, often without telling them. A principal aim is to amass a deep database of information about consumers that can be sold to marketers.