Chapter 8. The Web’s War on Your Privacy

You watch the Web, and the Web watches you. With a few notable exceptions, every time you look at a page on the World Wide Web, somewhere there is a computer that makes note of this fact. Visit a web site designed for parents of small children, then visit another site that is devoted to consumer electronics, and somewhere a computer slowly builds a profile of your interests. Take a few minutes to “register” for an account with your email address, and you’ll soon start receiving a stream of emails in your inbox hawking “special offers.”

As the Web has created unprecedented opportunities for consumers, it has also created heretofore unimaginable possibilities for marketers, sales organizations, hucksters, tricksters, and outright criminals. A marketing company that puts a billboard up by a highway is content knowing how many cars per day drive by its sign. That same company putting a banner advertisement up on a popular web site would like to know far more information about the people seeing its message—where they live, whether they get their Internet access from a business or through a university, what other web sites the person has visited, and sometimes, even their email addresses. It can be exceedingly difficult to determine the effectiveness of billboards and magazine advertisements. Web advertisements, by contrast, can be metered, examined, and analyzed. All of this power comes at a price to individual privacy, because detailed statistics ...

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