In the 40's and 50's, with his creation of a blacklist, Senator Joe McCarthy set in motion a modern day witchhunt. Among those accused and suspected of Communist ties were many of Hollywood's elite writers, directors, producers and entertainers. After being sworn in, those with Communist sympathies were grilled by a Congressional committee headed by McCarthy, who led the infamous "naming of names." By the end of his reign of terror, numerous careers were ruined and lives destroyed.
In the 60's and 70's FBI director J. Edgar Hoover started his own investigation into many private American citizens. But unlike McCarthy, Hoover's list was not limited to Tinsel-town's A list, his included labor leaders, political activists, draft resisters and even college professors.
There were three common traits of McCarthy and Hoover's initiatives. First, individual investigations were not based on any grounded known facts of betrayal or espionage, rather they were based on the belief that these people might pose a threat to national security. Second, these initiatives were undertaken by government agents and agencies. Third, many of these investigations were conducted surreptitiously and for some, it took years to uncover their files and correct the record. But while many of the fears were ungrounded, the vast governmental dossiers haunted private citizens for many years.
There is a similar occurrence happening on the online world, but in this case, the information collectors are not government agents. In fact, these private groups are acting outside of any law or jurisdiction. They claim that since no real harm has occurred from the collection of information, there is no cause for concern. In fact, many of these sites state they store user profiles to enhance the online shopping or surfing experience.
So, is online information gathering cause for concern or much ado about nothing? According to a recent telephone survey of Internet users conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 94 percent believe that Internet firms and top executives should be punished if they violate a user's privacy. But, of those polled, 56 percent did not know that Web sites and advertisers could track their activities by placing cookies on their computers.
A "cookie," according to the Federal Trade Commission, is "A small text file that a website can place on your computer's hard drive in order for, example, to collect information about your activities on the site or to make it possible for you to use an online "shopping cart" to keep track of items you wish to purchase."
To help you reach your own conclusion, this site will provide you with the following background information: on how website operators collect online information using cookies, spyware and webbugs, the debate on the use of tracking devices, what online companies are doing about it, what the Feds. want to do about it and what you can do to protect yourself and your privacy.