You're Being Watched on the Web
Thursday, March 9, 2000
Not worried about privacy on the Internet? You should be. Web businesses can open up your life like a can of beans. Private enterprise is building what amounts to national data centers, gathering everything that's known about you and me.
Few people realize how precisely their lives and habits can be tracked online, and how little the "privacy policies" posted by many Web sites mean.
For example, say you've sought information about a debilitating disease, spent time in a chat room for recovering alcoholics, surfed porn sites at night or gambled online.
Those Web sites you visit may be attached to your personal name, address, e-mail address or even phone number.
Technically, searches can even be launched for key words, like "marijuana" or "sex," that you might have left in a chat room or on a public bulletin board.
These records the intimate and the mundane can trail you for life.
Simson Garfinkel, author of the insightful new book, "Database Nation" (O'Reilly, $24.95), calls this the dawning of "absolute accountability."
"Anything that can be known will be known, and it will be known to a greater degree of precision than was ever thought possible," he says.
How are you outed by the Web? Most commonly, through little tags called "cookies," which are quietly placed on your computer by the Web sites you visit. They can implant a unique identification number, which tells a site exactly who you are when you return.
When you buy a new computer and transfer your data from the old one, the cookies come along.
Cookies can make Web life easier. For example, they remember your password when you revisit a useful site.
When you're online and see ads on your screen, did you think they just happened to be there? Often, those ads have been sent to you deliberately. Your cookie showed that you were at a particular site, and the marketer served you an ad for something your profile says you might like.
When told about cookies, consumers tend to treat them as nothing more than a nuisance, like junk mail. Two recent events, however, show that cookies and other Web identifiers have a darker side.
One involves DoubleClick, the top company placing ads on the Web pages you view. Last November, it bought a company called Abacus Direct. Abacus holds records on 88 million households that buy from catalogs.
Formerly, DoubleClick tracked you with cookies but knew no more about you than your buying habits. Now, it can combine your future online viewing with your name and address. (For more information, check the Center for Democracy and Technology, cdt.org.)
The second event touches on your personal health. The California HealthCare Foundation backed a study of privacy on 21 popular health-related sites not what the sites say, but what they do.
It found that most of them betray you. Advertisers on many of those sites may be able to get your name and address. Third parties may see any health data that you trustfully give. (To read the study, which names names, go to chcf.org.)
If you hate being tracked on the Web, you can opt out. But few people know that, and opting out doesn't work for every site. (For help, see junkbusters.com, webwasher.com or call your Internet provider.)
Businesses argue that it's useful for you to see ads in your area of interest. Also, they say, advertising keeps Web sites free.
"But they don't need this new level of intrusiveness," says Lauren Weinstein of People For Internet Responsibility (pfir.org). It's enough to place ads on sites that attract interested people, without peeping into the rest of your life.
Advertising is the least of it. Cyberdossiers could be compiled, leaked or subpoenaed for divorce and custody cases, employment decisions, insurance coverage and simple malice. As databases enlarge and merge, Web marketers could have behavioral profiles of you to sell, says Junkbusters' Jason Catlett.
Does that sound far-fetched? So did cookies, at first.
For the first time, personal IDs are entering presidential politics.
Both the Bush and McCain campaigns have linked registered Web users to voter lists, to splash ads on Republicans as they browse. (So far, Gore and Bradley have placed only general ads.)
I'm no Luddite. I travel all over the Web. But the science of personal tracking is moving faster than we know. Laws protecting private data and conversations are needed, now.
Jane Bryant Quinn welcomes letters on money issues and problems
but cannot offer individual financial advice.
© 2000 Washington Post Writers Group