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On the Internet, cookies aren’t what they seem. They are mechanisms that allow a Web site to deliver data to a client (surfer). They can request that the client store the information and, sometimes, return the information to the Web site. These cookies leave behind crumbs that are bits of information about your browsing habits. By picking up these crumbs, Web site hosts, advertisers, service providers or direct marketers can actually track your movements to see what you see and where you go as you click your way through their site. However, these cookies can only be retrieved by the site that set them and can only contain data that you have provided, such as registration information or your activities within the site.
“Think of what it would be like if somebody followed you and recorded everything you did as you went through a shopping mall. This is what happens on the Web,” says Beth Givens, project director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. Most users don’t know they can disable cookies through the Options menu on their browsers, she adds.
The Internet is hailed as a groundbreaking medium that is bringing people closer together through unlimited communications capabilities, but privacy advocates caution that, unless checked, information gathered on the Web could give rise to unsavory developments. Extensive online databases make accessing information on individuals and companies easier than it’s ever been, giving people data to make decisions that affect you without your input or clarification.
“The interesting thing about this privacy issue is that sometimes you will never know when you’ve been discriminated against and why,” explains Lori Fena, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco organization that examines privacy issues. “Sometimes having more information about you will cause people to make a choice, but it won’t be the reason you are given,” she says.
The available information runs the gamut from Social Security and criminal background information on individuals to financial information on companies. One Web site, www.deepdata.com, operated by Access Information Systems of Fair Oaks, California, says its super business filings search can retrieve virtually anything on companies, from the identities of the people and partners who own or invest in them to corporate filings that track company decisions, liens and court actions.
Another information broker, Hi-Tek Information Services of Studio City, California, boasts that “now you too can learn everything about your friends, neighbors, enemies, employees or anyone else!–even your boss!” Through its Web site on America Online at http://members.aol.com/tunzaemail/snoop.htm, Hi-Tek says it can find information on credit, current or past employment, military service, adoption and mail order purchases, as well as get addresses, unlisted phone numbers, driving records and court transcripts.
While much of the information that can be gathered is available through public records, privacy advocates say it is the potential for what can be done with the information that can spell problems, particularly information gathered when people visit Web sites. Fena points out, for instance, that if you’re an employee and you spend