TCS Daily


A Surfer`s Guide to Online Privacy

By Meredith Pearson - July 17, 2000 12:00 AM

Have you been targeted lately? For online marketers, "targeting" means watching everything you do online, recording your interests and then using that data to offer you what you`re most likely to buy. I experience targeting every time I log on to my CDNow.com account. CDNow suggests music that I might enjoy based on the selections that I`ve made in the past. So far, my main complaint is not that they`re targeting me -- the problem is they have lousy aim. For instance, after purchasing the latest Beastie Boys release, I logged on to my account again and noticed that my recommended selection was Bach. How the connection was made between rap and classical music, I will never know. I mean, the Beasties` "Sabotage" video was definitely a classic, but I don`t hear any Bach influence in the music.

So I`m open to CD suggestions based on my past purchases, but I understand some people want strict controls on the collection and use of marketing data. If you`re one of those people, there are a few options for protecting your privacy. Be aware that each time you say yes to a license agreement on a Web site, without studying the text, you run the risk of consenting to the sale of your personal information by that company.

You may not feel like reading all the fine print, so there are other privacy tools. One visit to Anonymizer.com will show you how much information a Web site can collect, without even asking for it. With one click I was reading a detailed description of my computer and its hardware, how many sites I had visited in that particular session, where I had been before, and what plug-ins I have installed on my hard drive. Anonymizer.com offers anyone the ability to surf anonymously through its Web site without downloading or purchasing their services.

Another privacy service is IDcide.com. For free, I obtained the ability to recognize when I was being followed by "persistent cookies" and on which sites the information I offered could be bought and sold to other companies. I downloaded the Privacy Companion in about four minutes. The install wizard took another three or four minutes to complete and then I was surfing again, armed with the tools to protect myself from online predators. Using three small icons, the Privacy Companion lets you know when your privacy is being infringed upon. It keeps a running record of Web sites which use persistent cookies or tracking networks. These are the tools used to collect and maintain your personal information and track just where it is you`ve surfed and are likely to surf in the future, all of which is gold to cyber-marketers. The Privacy Companion is designed merely as a warning system. It won`t prevent you from visiting sites, but it will tell you what a particular site can do with your data. So IDcide is offering not anonymity, but control. (IDcide is not compatible with some ISPs like AOL.)

For AOL users, the "WWW" button on the Preferences option (under "My AOL") allows you to choose, for example, whether to receive cookies. AOL will send warning messages or prevent pages from downloading if they`re not compatible with the settings you choose. You might also want to check the privacy policies of your ISP. AOL`s Privacy Policy is included in the Terms of Service - located using Keywords -- and it states that AOL doesn`t use any information about your online destinations or sell that information to others. AOL also pledges not to sell your credit card information, telephone number, or screen name unless you have authorized them to do so and allows you to opt out of snail-mailing lists. That option can be accessed under My AOL, Preferences, and then Marketing. Other ISPs like MSN offer similar options.

While these settings do not allow for total anonymity, they do offer some privacy protection. Similar options are available in most browsers, including Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. From Navigator hit Edit, Preferences, and then Advanced. From Internet Explorer choose Tools, Internet Options, and then Security.

At the leading edge of privacy tools, the World Wide Web Consortium has created the Platform for Privacy Preferences Policy (P3P) as the simple way for users to gain more control over the use of their personal information on Web sites they visit. P3P-enabled browsers can "read" your privacy preferences off your computer and compare them to the policies of the sites you visit. Look for further developments in this direction by Microsoft and others in the near future. Some or all of these tools should help you avoid becoming a target of cyber-marketers, unless of course you want to be one.
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