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Thursday, 16 August, 2001, 09:12 GMT 10:12 UK
Web bugs spying on net users
Web bug graphic
Use of web bugs up by 500% over the past three years
By BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

Web bugs are crawling over the internet, secretly collecting information about surfing habits, says a new report.

Internet tracking firm Cyveillance found that the use of web bugs, has risen by almost 500% over the past three years.

A web page was nearly five times more likely to contain a web bug today than in 1998, said the report.

"As public awareness levels begin to rise, the fact the websites are collecting information from visitors without permission is likely to generate more controversy," said the report.

Hidden within webpages

Web bugs are hidden graphics embedded in web pages primed to collect information about visitors to the site.

The collection of visitor information through web bugs...could be considered a violation of privacy policies, exposing a company to unwanted repercussions in terms of corporate and brand image

Often only a pixel in size, they can gather information such as the user's IP address or the type of browser used to retrieve the bug.

The web bugs can dig out details about your computer, and work best together with cookies - files that log what you do on a website - and can interrogate them to find out more about you.

Unlike banner ads that collect comparable information, web bugs are more controversial as they cannot be detected without studying the source data of a webpage or using special software.

The new version of Internet Explorer, IE 6.0, will let people refuse all third party cookies, typically used to track the success of banner ads.

Website developers more commonly use the bugs to customise a user's experience or to gather statistics on the site.

Violation of privacy?

But privacy experts say the hidden images are the first of a new generation of "spyware" designed to watch what people do on the web without them knowing.

Cyveillance findings
One million pages sampled between 1998-2001
Bugs on 0.7% in 1998
Bugs on 3.9% in 2001
18% of personal pages
16% on homepages associated with top brands

"The proliferation of web bugs combined with the explosive growth of the internet and vast online partner networks multiplies the risk to the average company of association with privacy concerns," said the report authors, Brian H Murray and James J Cowart.

"The collection of visitor information through web bugs...could be considered a violation of privacy policies, exposing a company to unwanted repercussions in terms of corporate and brand image."

"The risk is even greater given that privacy concerns are already at the top of consumers' minds," they said.

Personal pages bugged

Cyveillance looked at a random sample of one million webpages gathered during 1998 and 2001. Overall, web bugs showed up on 3.9% of all sites, compared to 0.7% in 1998.

The use of the bugs was most prevalent on personal pages, amounting to 18%. But the report said the owners of the personal pages were unlikely to know about the spyware.

Instead they were likely to have been placed there by the company hosting the site or by third parties such as ads.

More alarmingly, web bugs were found on 16% of homepages connected with top brands, often just one click away from stated privacy policies.

"The results of this study emphasize what we're seeing every day - companies want to earn and retain the trust of their customers, and an association with web bugs has the potential to seriously undermine those efforts," said Cyveillance President Panos Anastassiadis.

Andrew Muir from Cyveillance
"It's a question of trust"
See also:

21 Jun 00 | Talking Point
Is net surveillance prying or policing?
25 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Watching while you surf
10 May 00 | Talking Point
Should your e-mails be screened at work?
22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
Encryption for all
20 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Pixel-high privacy spy
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