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© Copyright 2001
Jane Inouye, APR
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Last updated: April 30, 2001

On-line tracking: Cookies, Spyware and webbugs - oh my!

They may not be standing behind you and reading over your shoulder, but on-line profilers can collect as much, if not more information on your personal web-surfing remotely with the use of cookies, spyware and webbugs.

The Cookie Story

Everyone loves cookies, right? At least that's what the engineers at Netscape thought when they extended their protocol to allow sites to tag individual browsers with information that would be available when one returned to the site.

Essentially, there are two kind of cookies used by web-site operators: magic cookies and poison cookies.

A magic cookie stores and retains personal information and are often used for on-line shopping. The advantage of a magic cookie is it allows personal shopping information to be stored and accessed when placing an order. In addition, magic cookies can customize your site visit, listing items and features you might find of interest or use.

Poison cookies can be intrusive and are generally placed on a personal system via banner ads. Cookies that are set by an ad server such as Doubleclick Inc. can be read by any server in the ad company's domain, making a surfer's web-browsing activities an open-book.

In some cases web-site operators. such as Amazon.com, retain the right to sell or share data gathered with other interested parties without an individual's knowledge or consent.

Spyware is secret code embedded within software that "Hides on your computer and watches what you do, without your knowledge or explicit permission, and collects personal information about you and your use of the Internet. One of the more insidious features of spyware is its ability to link e-mail addresses with profiles of individual users. It's estimated that more than 400 software programs may be infected with spyware.

Webbugs are tiny graphic images, one pixel in size, often the same color as the background of a web page and in essence, invisible to the user. Embedded code then collects a user's Internet protocol address, operating system type and version, browser type and version and the last page visited. Using java-script, web bugs can also look at cookies stored on an individuals work-station to develop a surfing profile. And just like their pesky brothers who skitter around the kitchen counters at night, it's hard to rid your system of them. To prevent web bug infestation, web surfers have to turn off all graphics.