INTERNET PRIVACY: Online Tracking Firms Draw Protests
"Millions [of Americans] are inadvertently surrendering privacy" when they log onto the Internet, writes Howard Weaver, editorial editor for the Sacramento Bee. He notes, "Just as the Internet shifts into high gear as a mass medium -- with millions of relatively unsophisticated users now employing the Web for purchases and recreation -- commercial interests are becoming adept at tracking and manipulating users." For example, DoubleClick Inc., one of the most successful tracking firms, has over 100 million files detailing the Web use of online surfers represented by anonymous ID numbers. The company has taken its efforts even further with the purchase of Abacus Direct Group -- a firm that maintains a database of consumer names, addresses and retail habits -- and now can match that ID number to a "vast Abacus database (culled from records of credit card purchases, credit reports, mortgages and God knows what else) to get a detailed picture of who you are, what you do and where you visit on the Web." Weaver reports that the company refuses to reveal which sites share the user registration information it matches with Web data. He warns online users to keep these systems in mind when registering personal information on various Web sites and urges them to visit the Electronic Privacy Information Center, where they can join the protest of tracking practices (1/31).
Hiawatha Bray of the Boston Globe expresses a similar frustration with DoubleClick, pointing out that although the company does allow surfers to "opt out" of the tracking system, it "is buried so deep in the DoubleClick site that its Web address is a good six inches long." Bray urges online users to go to opt-out.cdt.org, where they will find instructions on how to be removed from the company's lists. In addition, Bray writes, she plans to lobby "other Web sites to stop hosting DoubleClick's intolerably nosy cookies." Bray concludes, "If you value your privacy, you'll do the same" (1/27).