When Does Demographic Gathering Become Wiretapping?

I had a rude awakening last week: I realized that my Web browser has been bugged for some time. It seems that certain unscrupulous entities have placed a tap on my Internet activity without my knowledge and without a court order. Oh wait, no one needs a court order to tap my surfing habits—not yet anyway.

When you read the story "Your Web Browser is Bugged" under SECURITY ROUNDUP further down in this newsletter, you'll learn that numerous companies have bugged the Internet to gather data from users without their direct consent. These companies embed a tiny 1-pixel by 1-pixel graphic, called a Web bug, into a Web page. They use the graphic to test browser options and to gather other information about you and your system. Companies such as DoubleClick and Barnes and Noble have added Web bugs to their arsenal of data-gathering devices; even Microsoft has gotten into the act by testing your browser's Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) strength with a Web bug when you visit the Windows 2000 home page. Surprised? It gets worse.

I've maintained the opinion over the years that the Internet is no different than the streets of any American city, and we should apply the same ethics on the street and in cyberspace. Web bugs are a perfect example: They're a modern equivalent to an illegal wiretap because they monitor network communications at a subtle, yet revealing, level of detail without the user's knowledge or consent and without any legal authorization. It's illegal for anyone to profile your television viewing habits without your consent or without a court order. I fail to understand how the Internet is different from the street in this respect.

Web sites are simply content channels, similar to a television station. So why isn't it illegal for companies such as DoubleClick or Barnes and Noble to monitor which Web sites (content channels) we use on the Internet? Aren't Web bugs equivalent to the illegal monitoring of cable television channel usage? They both profile a person's content-viewing habits. I think it's time we update our laws to stop the placement of unauthorized Internet wiretaps regardless of whether they take the form of cookies, Web bugs, or some other covert communication mechanism.

As you'll learn in another news item in this newsletter, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta recently announced a set of suggested law updates—some of which expand existing wiretap laws. Be sure to read this week's news stories, and until next time, have a great week.

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