Computers and the Web


        Like e-mail, the files on your computer do not really disappear when you click on the delete button.  Rather, the file is merely hidden from view and its disk space is marked as available for reuse.  Footnotes in the Kenneth Starr report mention files deleted and recovered from Monica Lewinsky’s home computer.  A woman in Nevada recently bought a used computer only to discover the names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and prescription information for 2,000 AIDS patients, alcoholics, and mentally ill people.  The computer formerly belonged to a pharmacy.  Anything you’ve ever deleted from your computer could still be hiding in there, especially if you have several gigabytes of hard disk capacity (Lewis, 1998).

        Some of the monitoring tools mentioned earlier in the section on e-mail can also be used by employers to track employees’ use of software, which Web sites they visit, and even the individual keystrokes they type (Shiver, 1999).  In the absence of such tools, there are other ways to see which Web sites you have visited.  Hold down the Control key and type the letter H to see your browser’s history folder (Shiver, 1999).  The Cache folder in your browser folder also contains clues to where you have been, mostly in the form of images and graphic displays.

        Connecting to the Internet literally opens one’s computer to the whole world.  It should come as no surprise that there are people who use this connection to find out more about you.  For a demonstration of how much you reveal about yourself as you surf the Web, visit http://privacy.net/analyze/.  The process of tracking Web surfers as they click from one page to the next is known as clickstream monitoring, or online profiling (McGrath, 1999).  Its ultimate aim, in a nutshell, is to get you to spend your money.  Privacy expert Andrew Shen has said “the offline equivalent of online profiling was if someone was following you around the mall all day, keeping track of what stores you went into, what items you looked at and tried on, which items you purchased, when you entered the mall, when you left.  Everything” (Tanaka, 1999, 101).

        Online advertisers such as DoubleClick (http://www.doubleclick.net/), Engage (http://www.engage.com/), and MatchLogic (http://www.matchlogic.com/) use the data they collect about you to put the ads you find most appealing on your screen as you browse the Web.  For example, suppose you frequently visit Web sites related to sports and parenting.  Your online profile suggests that you are a 30- to 40-year-old male with children, so an advertising company will send a banner ad for the new GM minivan to the Web page you are currently viewing.  Engage, just one of the companies that conducts online profiling, claims to have unique profiles for roughly 35 million Internet users, about 40 percent of the total online population.  Each profile contains 800 “fields of interest” inferred from one’s online behavior (Tanaka, 1999).  But how do they know where you’ve been?

        The answer is hidden on your hard drive, probably in a folder titled “Cookies.”  Cookies are files that Web sites and online advertisers install on your computer (whether you realize it or not) to record your activities while visiting that site (McGrath, 1999).  To be fair, cookies can make life easier.  They enable you to customize popular homepages like Yahoo (http://my.yahoo.com/) and Netscape (http://my.netscape.com/) so that you can instantly check your local weather forecast and how high your stocks closed today.  And to be fair regarding online profiling, the companies creating these profiles are motivated by money, not a desire to invade your privacy.  Nevertheless, privacy concerns are the leading reason non-Internet users stay offline, and 81 percent of Internet users say they are anxious about online threats to their privacy (McCune, 1999).  In June of 1998, the Federal Trade Commission reported their findings that while 92 percent of the Web sites surveyed collected personally identifiable information, only 14 percent disclosed what they did with this data (Idler, 1999).

        Intel’s Pentium III chip, released early in 1999, came equipped with a feature called the Processor Serial Number (PSN).  Each PSN uniquely identified the owner of the computer, thus expanding the potential for online profiling (Idler, 1999; Quittner, 1999).  Much uproar from privacy-minded citizens ensued; Intel began shipping the Pentium III with the PSN turned off and developed software that allowed current users to disable it.  However, two programmers have found a way to hack around this software and turn the PSN back on.  Intel denies this allegation (Baskin, 1999).  For more information about the PSN controversy, see Big Brother Inside at http://www.bigbrotherinside.org/.

        RealNetworks (http://www.real.com/) recently announced that its CD software RealJukebox had been silently amassing information about the listening habits of its 13 million users.  In addition to simply playing CDs, RealJukebox relayed information about each CD back to RealNetworks, where a musical preference profile was created for each user.  To their credit, RealNetworks issued a public apology and immediately released a software patch to prevent further involuntary transmission of personal information. (Robinson, 1999; Tanaka, 1999)

        As invasive as online advertisers may be to your privacy, they are relatively harmless in comparison to stalkers and identity thieves.  In a matter of minutes, a stalker can use the Web to find your phone number, address, and driving directions to your home.  Identity thieves can buy some of your most personal information using only a Web browser and some cash.  Some of the going rates for these personal data:

        Social Security number  $15
        Current and previous address  $15
        Worker’s compensation records $25
        Bankruptcies, tax liens, judgments $35
        Vehicle Identification Number trace $35
        Non-published phone number  $65
        Background check   $140

Federal law protects cable television and video store records as well as individual credit reports; everything else is for sale (Attaran, 1999).
 



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Computers and the Web                                                                          Last updated December 8, 1999
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