Taking a Bite Out of Privacy Invasion
by Mark Liberator (e-mail: [September 22nd, 2000]

     Surfing the Internet may seem like an anonymous activity but making that assumption would be quite wrong. Surfers are tracked across the Internet but there are steps they can take to avoid being tracked.

What is a cookie?
     There is a certain type of file that is widely used to track Internet users, called cookies. Most Internet sites create a cookie file on the users harddrive that stores information which may be helpful when returning some time in the future to the same website.

     For instance, it allows users to personalize return visits to websites for stock updates, local news and other individualized information. However, this feature also allows big companies -- like advertising companies -- to keep tabs on surfer’s viewing habits.

Smart Ads
     Companies like Doubleclick make use of cookies to create a profile of Internet users surfing habits. Ultimately, these companies land up generating databases of facts allowing them to transmit advertisements that are geared for every individual surfer.

     This technology enables companies to send advertisements to surfers that increases the likelihood of creating sales. Call the advertisements ‘smart ads’ because the ads are chosen based on a surfer’s profile.

     Without getting into the hairy details, this type of advertising is made possible because sooner or later, surfers voluntarily give up personal information somewhere on the web. The information gets stored within a database and it stays connected to the originator’s electronic signature [ip address]. Every time he/she goes from one website to the next, the electronic signature follows the user and a database records the user’s path.

Regaining Privacy
     It is possible to regain privacy on the Internet if one uses an updated web browser like Internet Explorer. Surfers need to make a few simple modifications by carefully picking from the browser’s options.

     Configure the browser to set the cookies, ActiveX and Java controls to ‘confirm’ status. What this will do is allow the surfer to chose whether or not to accept these files on a site-by-site basis. This enables surfers to use sites that require cookies in return for certain free services like e-mail usage and online portfolios. It also enables surfers to entirely ignore cookies on other sites that do not provide special services.

     It is a good idea to routinely delete all files within the browser’s cache file as well. This will ensure there are no record-keeping files on the harddrive that are being used to invade privacy.

Divulging Information
     Surfers have to be extremely vigilant with their own privacy. They must familiarize themselves with confidentiality agreements before providing personal information to various websites.

     Let it be known that some websites sell the information they receive to advertisers. Giving up information to sites that do not sell their databases to advertisers can still be risky because the information can be tracked by knowledgeable members of the Internet community.

     Online anonymity may seem secure but it is clear there are methods to track users. The information surfers supply to Internet companies is used to create databases that generate viewer profiles. These profiles can help advertisers to produce harmless smart ads or worse keep detailed information for other purposes. However, changing a few browser options and safeguarding personal information can clear up this problem.

Resources and Avenues for Further Study

  • The Anonymizer: Privacy is Your Right
  • JunkBusters: How Web Servers' Cookies Threaten Your Privacy
  • Google Directory: Computers:Programming:Internet:Cookies:Privacy

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