A web bug is also known as web beacons, 1X1 GIFs, Clear GIF’s, Invisible GIFs, Pixel Tags and who knows what else. A web bug (E image) is often not seen by the naked eye when they are implanted on web pages and within emails because the are typically only 1X1 pixels in size.
The use of web bugs is fairly widespread since their concept in the 80’s. According to Richard Smith, chief technology officer at the Privacy Foundation one in ten pages on the Internet use web bugs. These bugs collect information off your computer such as its IP address, the URL address of the page you visit or email you opened, the time you visited, the type browser that you are using, a previously set cookie value, how much time you spend her or there, the web page the bug is located on and so forth. Though this is considered non-personally identifiable information that is normally collected by third party advertisers it is done so without consumer knowledge. It is rare that privacy policies available for consumer review even mention this practice and even when they do the instructions for opting out of bugs and cookies are vague or non-existent.
The problem with collecting non-personally identifiable information is that in time the information can be magnified into a complete consumer profile that can include personally identifiable data on individuals that includes, but is not limited to such information as name, postal address, phone number, e-mail address, social security number, driver’s license number, health data and more.
To understand how this process grows from non-identifiable information to a complete consumer profile you have to understand the linking process and your computer basics. First understand when you visit a web page or open an email with a bug on it that the bug is going to implant what is called a cookie (URL String) into your computers operating system.
If you for example (on another day or even another site) entered a contest, made an online purchase, completed a survey, signed up for a newsletter or did anything that required the submission of information to a website that uses a bug to transmit information to a network of advertisers; that info once retrieved and processed by a website could get incorporated into a previously implanted URL String (Cookie). This info gets transited back to third party advertisers and eventually there is a complete linkage of personally identifying information.
Now before you get into a complete panic, throw your computer out the window and declare you will never surf the Internet again also understand most modern PC operating systems now have firewalls and other security measures installed and features to impose many other options to avoid or delete bugs and cookies.
How Do You Avoid the Eavesdropping?
The easiest thing you can do immediately is to turn off cookies. If you are using Microsoft Internet Explorer click Tools and from the drop down listing click Internet Options and click on the subsequent Security Tab. There under the Privacy Tab you have various levels for filtering or eliminating cookies altogether. If using Netscape, pull down from Edit to Preferences; from the menu on the left, Open Roaming Access and click on the Item Selection and then click off cookies. Understand turning off cookies will bar you from entry to some sites that require cookies are on and the ability for the web world to understand your interests and surfing habits for better or worse via bugs and cookies.
A third option is to visit software download sites and purchase individual security software or packages that include such things as firewalls, anti-virus, pop-up blockers, adware removers, spyware removers, malware, worm and Trojan detectors, encryption, password protectors, or even URL masking, proxy servers and/or email redirects. The possibilities and selections are endless and prices range from free trials to are you out of your mind despite the overall reputability.
Being an advocate however, for consumer awareness I would not be doing my job if you were not advised there also some free bug detection options. For example you can visit the Privacy Foundation that offers a free bug detection tool at bugnosis.org. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has a good selection of privacy protection software that can be accessed by visiting epic.org/privacy/tools.html. I’m not sure what is free as the listing is quite extensive. Last but not least another free package can be downloaded where you can View and delete web “Cookies” left by the web sites you’ve visited.