Are you being watched?

Some invasive companies and their Websites may put your privacy at risk

In any discussion surrounding the future of the Internet, the topic of online privacy inevitably surfaces. The rapidly increasing number of users, coupled with the new economic models for online commerce, have created a heated controversy regarding how to best protect individuals and companies working, surfing and conducting business in cyberspace. Fortunately, steps have been taken to begin improving privacy on the Internet by online activist groups, self-policing organizations and the U.S. government.

In essence the Internet is a largely unregulated world that individuals, companies and organizations now rely on daily. With so much information available online, it is easier than ever before to find information on almost anything or anyone. As you navigate the Internet, your visits throughout the world online are not always anonymous. By understanding the various ways in which you leave an information trail while surfing, you can greatly reduce the amount of information available about yourself online.

EVERY STEP YOU TAKE
"The general problem is that a lot of Websites today are like information sponges," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "There’s a big question about how much privacy consumers have to give up in order to visit or shop on company Websites."

Some Websites can immediately determine certain information about you regardless of how long you are on the site or if you voluntarily provide the information. Others place "cookies" automatically on your computer when you visit. Placing a cookie on your computer allows a Website to automatically keep track of your visit. This information helps marketing executives and information gatherers determine the most popular areas on their site and helps them improve what they offer.

By tracking your favorite content along the way, they can also determine your personal interests and very often draw conclusions about your gender, race, age and a myriad of other psychographic information, including shopping habits and technological savvy. This not only helps the site target you with more appropriate advertisements on your next visit, it also gives the site personal data that has been nearly impossible to gather through any other media in the past. What Websites use this personal information for now and in the future is the object of much of the debate surrounding online privacy.

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission ordered GeoCities to post clear privacy policies. The online community company required participants to supply personal information to gain "free" access to the site, which it then sold to third parties without the consumers’ knowledge. Yahoo! also demonstrated that it was not impervious to privacy issues when it revealed that consumer files could be accessed by unauthorized parties.

And in one of the biggest controversies to surface at the beginning of the year, computer chip manufacturer Intel Corp. put unique serial numbers on each new Pentium III microprocessor. Intel designed the PIII chips to aid in corporate computer inventories and improve the authentication process for secure transactions on the Internet, but

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