They could be monitoring your every Web move
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.
That is a slogan from a world described by George Orwell in his book 1984. The
watching was done by the Thought Police through the telescreen, a television monitor that
received and transmitted simultaneously, observing every action of each individual within
its sight. Orwell offered a chilling vision of a future world.
The Internet is developing some of the monitoring capabilities that Orwell feared. The
same Web browser that permits a user to surf the Net and retrieve pictures, sound and data
of all types also may be the instrument that monitors and records the interests and
actions of those users.
One device that supports monitoring is the fancifully named"cookie."
Technical details are not important here; basically, cookies permit a server (that is, a
Web page) to tell a browser (such as Netscape running on your computer) to store certain
information and to give it back on subsequent visits to the same server.
Maintaining and sharing this information is not wholly malevolent. The data may be
essential so that a server can recognize users and provide customized service and data. As
a user moves from link to link, it may be appropriate and necessary for a Web page to
remember where the user had been and to retrieve information provided or seen at that
site. To support easy surfing from one page to another, this storage and retrieval may be
essential. It can also be useful when a user returns to a Web site at a later time or
It seems similar to a waiter in your favorite restaurant who remembers what you like to
eat. The good part is that you get personal service. The bad part is that someone knows
your habits and interests and can tell others. If you are uncomfortable with your waiter,
you can sit at another table or go to another restaurant.
But with your browser, there may be no easy way to avoid the cookie phenomenon. You
can't even tell it's happening. You may think that the Web page on the other end of the
network does not know who you are or what you are doing, but the capability exists for
monitoring and storing every click you make.
Who cares what you click at? There are two main interest groups. First,
advertiser-supported Web sites want to know how many people use the site and see the
advertising, like Nielsen ratings for television. Advertising prices and content depend on
who is watching. Ever notice how network news has ads for laxatives and dentures but not
for acne remedies? Advertisers know that the audience for news is made up largely of the
The same principles apply to Web advertising. Advertisers want to know who uses a site,
for how long and for what purpose. For television, a statistical sample of viewers gives
detailed demographic information. Sampling is not so simple on the Internet. Anyway, why
take a sample when you can count each user?
Direct marketers form the second group interested in your click stream. Marketers want
to know everything about you so they can target you. Nearly every unsolicited letter and
phone call that you receive has been targeted to you because of where you live, what you
buy, how many kids you have, whether you have credit cards, etc. Marketers are voracious.
They will collect, combine and use just about every scrap of identifiable information
about you they can.
For marketers the Net is a potential gold mine. Every click of your mouse may reveal
something about your interests. If a Web page can identify and list its users, someone
will likely buy that list. The information will be used to send mail and to enhance
personal profiles in marketing databases.
I want to emphasize three points here. First, the cookie surveillance phenomenon cannot
be dismissed as a sinister plot. Even discounting the advertising and marketing aspects,
there are some direct user benefits to the tracking. Don't be misled by columnists who
draw parallels to George Orwell. The issue is more complex than that.
Second, cookies are not the only Web tracking technology. There are other devices that
can track network users within and across sessions. The issue is a generic one.
Finally, it should be possible for cookies and privacy to coexist. I will discuss this
next month. For those who can't wait for the answer, I offer a hint: disclosure, consent
and a privacy icon.
Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is [email protected].