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Are you being watched?

Some invasive companies and their Websites may put your privacy at risk

In any discussion surrounding the future of the Internet, the topic of online privacy inevitably surfaces. The rapidly increasing number of users, coupled with the new economic models for online commerce, have created a heated controversy regarding how to best protect individuals and companies working, surfing and conducting business in cyberspace. Fortunately, steps have been taken to begin improving privacy on the Internet by online activist groups, self-policing organizations and the U.S. government.

In essence the Internet is a largely unregulated world that individuals, companies and organizations now rely on daily. With so much information available online, it is easier than ever before to find information on almost anything or anyone. As you navigate the Internet, your visits throughout the world online are not always anonymous. By understanding the various ways in which you leave an information trail while surfing, you can greatly reduce the amount of information available about yourself online.


"The general problem is that a lot of Websites today are like information sponges," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "There's a big question about how much privacy consumers have to give up in order to visit or shop on company Websites."

Some Websites can immediately determine certain information about you regardless of how long you are on the site or if you voluntarily provide the information. Others place "cookies" automatically on your computer when you visit. Placing a cookie on your computer allows a Website to automatically keep track of your visit. This information helps marketing executives and information gatherers determine the most popular areas on their site and helps them improve what they offer.

By tracking your favorite content along the way, they can also determine your personal interests and very often draw conclusions about your gender, race, age and a myriad of other psychographic information, including shopping habits and technological savvy. This not only helps the site target you with more appropriate advertisements on your next visit, it also gives the site personal data that has been nearly impossible to gather through any other media in the past. What Websites use this personal information for now and in the future is the object of much of the debate surrounding online privacy.

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission ordered GeoCities to post clear privacy policies. The online community company required participants to supply personal information to gain "free" access to the site, which it then sold to third parties without the consumers' knowledge. Yahoo! also demonstrated that it was not impervious to privacy issues when it revealed that consumer files could be accessed by unauthorized parties.

And in one of the biggest controversies to surface at the beginning of the year, computer chip manufacturer Intel Corp. put unique serial numbers on each new Pentium III microprocessor. Intel designed the PIII chips to aid in corporate computer inventories and improve the authentication process for secure transactions on the Internet, but privacy advocates feared that the feature could easily be used by companies or the government to track a user's Web surfing and buying habits.


Although the ID beacon could be turned on and off by the user, media and congressional pressure led Intel to decide to ship the PIII chip with the ID beacon turned off so that users would have to make a conscious choice to activate it through software.

Developments such as these have pushed the privacy issue to the forefront and gained the attention of several lawmakers. In a letter to Intel, U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey expressed his concern that new technologies should further the development of electronic commerce and security without sacrificing the privacy of consumers. Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection, has led discussions about Internet privacy for more than two years. At press time he was drafting a bill to protect consumer privacy online. "We need basic rules on the books to protect consumers in the digital age," says David Moulton, press secretary for Markey.

U.S. Sens. Conrad R. Burns and Ron Wyden have introduced a similar measure. The focus of both bills is to give consumers the right to know what information is being collected about them, as well as have the right to deny the sale of personal information to third parties. So far, the only law protecting consumer rights in the digital arena is the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, which restricts how sites can obtain and use information about child Internet users. While the outcome of the legislation will certainly change the privacy landscape, some organizations and companies are taking their own initiative to ensure consumer privacy.

The World Wide Web Consortium, a standards-setting organization for the World Wide Web, is advocating that businesses conform to the guidelines set out in its Privacy Preferences Project (P3P), but many companies say that they are technically difficult to implement. The P3P system works through Web browsers to automatically alert surfers to what information is being collected by a site. The Online Privacy Alliance, a coalition of corporations, is also developing and promoting industry privacy standards. IBM, the second largest advertiser on the Net with a 1999 online ad budget of $60 million, threatened to pull its advertising from sites that don't state a clear privacy policy after an internal survey found that only 30 percent of the 800 sites that it supports with ads have policies.

Online activist groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, JunkBusters, the Online Privacy Alliance and the Better Business Bureau Online, are in the midst of actively fighting for increased privacy online. The outcome of proposed government legislation relating to unsolicited e-mail (also known as spam), and ways to curb fraud perpetrated by e-mail, will have a very powerful effect on the way marketing and sales are done online.


It is important to note that although the amount of information online will only continue to grow, there are certain steps that can increase your privacy on the Internet even before new legislation is passed:

* Create nonsensical passwords. Your account is only as secure as your password, so make sure to use unique combinations of numbers, letters and symbols.

* Assume that any information you send is not private unless you have a powerful encryption program.

* Read the fine print when making a purchase or providing information online. Make sure the sites you visit will not be selling your information to a third party or using it for any other purpose.

* Remember, the delete key does not make your e-mail messages disappear. They can almost always be retrieved from backup systems.

* Turn the "cookies" setting off on your computer. All computer users have the ability to program their computers to not accept cookies without their permission.

* When making online purchases, make sure your transaction is secure. You will usually see a closed lock or other icon in the bottom corner of the screen to confirm that the information you are inputting is safe.

By following these simple steps and keeping abreast of developments regarding online privacy, you can limit the amount of information you make available about yourself. However, do not go overboard in trying to protect yourself in cyberspace. The Internet is an amazing medium that can greatly enhance your knowledge and experience. By using common sense and following a few guidelines, you can still enjoy the Internet and limit the amount of information you make available to others.


* Visit the Electronic Privacy Information Center (, which keeps a catalog of privacy issue links and resources.

* Educate yourself further about privacy issues by signing on with the Center for Democracy and Technology ( and the Computers Freedom and Privacy Conference (

* When surfing, look for the Truste or Better Business Bureau symbols, which show that a Website is following basic privacy policy practices.

* Always read a Website's privacy policies. These are usually accessible on its home page. Review sales policies on a site before making a purchase: you should know if the information you supply during the transaction will be up for sale to third parties.

* If you want to surf the Web anonymously, visit The Anonymizer (, which will hide your surfing history as you browse the Web. The Anonymizer will also provide a privacy analysis of your Internet connection. The site checks your browser and displays some of the information that is collected about you when you visit a Website. When we visited, it told us our Internet Protocol address, computer ID, screen resolution and all of the plug-ins currently installed in our browser.

* To keep your computer slim and avoid cookies, visit JunkBusters (

* If you believe your privacy has been violated, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.ors) or the Federal Trade Commission (

J.R.A. and J.W.E.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:government and organizations voice concerns over Internet privacy
Author:Ellis, John W. IV
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 1999
Previous Article:No more busy signals.
Next Article:Reversal of fortune.

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