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Tuesday, 15 August, 2000, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Web gets wise to who you are
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward
Unless you are careful, the internet might know more about you than you know about it.
Privacy experts are warning that people are unknowingly handing over information about surfing habits and online identities to advertisers, e-commerce and marketing companies.
They warn that unless people take steps to limit the data they are leaking, they risk compromising their personal their privacy.
Later this year in the UK, laws come into force that will give consumers power to demand what companies know about them and what happens to that information.
Experts in the UK and the US say the right to online privacy is being eroded on two fronts: by companies selling information they gather on shoppers and by browsing software that allows personal information to be harvested.
Richard Smith, chief technology officer at the Privacy Foundation, says consumers should know how companies work out who they are and build up profiles of their surfing habits.
Typically the first time a website is visited, a cookie is generated identifying that user. The cookie is then stored on the user's machine.
But, says Mr Smith, many of the adverts on web pages create "third-party" cookies that can be used to identify individuals as they move around the web.
Third-party cookies are checked and updated whenever someone visits websites carrying adverts from the same company.
"The banner ad companies get to watch as you surf the web," says Mr Smith.
Sloppy programming on websites can mean these cookies capture more than the basic information about IP address and browser type that computers hand over when requesting web pages.
Companies such as Doubleclick and Engage are actively using third-party cookies to profile users and match e-mail addresses with individuals.
Mr Smith says the cookies identify individual computers and, because many people use just one machine at home, this lets advertisers and marketing companies work out who the users are.
Mr Smith says unless people take more care to restrict the information being collected about them, they risk losing online anonymity and being inundated with e-mail messages they do not want about services they will not use.
He urges people to become more familiar with the browser they use to and to visit sites like Junkbusters, which checks how much information they are leaking.
Netscape's browser has allowed people to block the collection of third-party cookies for over a year. Microsoft is promising an update for Internet Explorer that will alert people when these cookies are being collected. Some browsers, such as Opera, do not allow third-party cookies to be collected at all.
"It is by no means obvious what information is being collected and how it is going to be used," said Phil Jones, an assistant commissioner at the Data Protection Commission. "You can no longer assume that those who are online are leading edge techies well equipped to be custodians of their own privacy."
An ongoing survey by Julie Earp and Gale Meyer as part of the Internet Security and Privacy Project at North Carolina State University has found that people use the web more if they are sure that their privacy is being protected.
It revealed that more people are worried about personal information being sold or used without their permission than they are about having their credit card number stolen.
Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal, says the threat to privacy from companies abusing personal information is as great as that from cookies and other tracking software.
He says only 20% of those online are doing enough to protect their privacy and know enough about browsers.
The rest are largely unaware of the information they are passing on or what happens to data they are happy to share. Anyone using a credit card online is exposing who they are and information about their lifestyle.
"Consumers should know more about the technology and not assume that the internet is a secure medium at all," he says.
Earlier this month, Yahoo! stopped the sale of a list of 200,000 names, addresses and phone numbers that were being offered on its auction site.
Robert Ellis Smith recommended people be more careful with the information they type into online forms and challenge requests for irrelevant information.
Companies are gradually becoming more aware of consumers' worries and many post their privacy policies on their websites.
Last month saw the launch of TrustUK a scheme that will police the privacy policies of web-based businesses.
A spokeswoman for the Direct Marketing Association says that all its members have to adhere to a code of conduct that limits what they can do with personal information.
Later this year, British consumers will get more power to tackle companies that are not doing enough to protect the personal information they hand over.
In October, some provisions in the 1998 Data Protection Act come into force which will let consumers demand the information companies hold about them, where that information came from, and what will happen to it.
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