The Denver-based group said today it plans to establish a privacy center at the University of Denver to conduct research about online profiling technologies such as cookies and Web bugs. Both are electronic tags that track visitors' whereabouts in cyberspace, but Web bugs are more insidious because they are invisible on a page and virtually undetectable.
The announcements come as online privacy issues have moved to the forefront of Internet policy debates. The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly close to endorsing a privacy agreement negotiated with an online advertising industry group to protect Web surfers. Just last week, Microsoft said it will offer an update to its Web browser IE 5.5 that lets consumers manage cookies.
Yahoo and online advertising network Engage also have stepped up privacy initiatives.
These actions are an effort to calm increasing public concern about profiling tactics online. Legislators and the public worry that information is gathered about where Web surfers click, allowing sites and advertisers to keep profiles of them. But advertisers say that such technology improves visitors' experiences online by allowing Web sites to deliver personalized pages and targeted messages.
"Privacy is a hot topic and getting hotter," said Smith, who was named the center's chief technology officer. "It's where technology, law and personal rights collide, particularly as the Internet becomes entwined in our daily lives."
Smith, who has uncovered security and privacy flaws in products such as Microsoft's Hotmail, Microsoft Word and RealNetworks software, will work closely with the center on technology research, educate the public on privacy protection online, and represent the center's findings publicly. Smith, who will telecommute from the Boston area, has been working as an Internet security consultant since last year. Before that, he was president of Phar Lap Software.
"This initiative will make an important contribution to the protection of privacy rights for American citizens," Daniel Ritchie, chancellor of the University of Denver, said in a statement.
"As the Privacy Center evolves, we foresee an expanded reach into the areas of cyberlaw, business ethics and professional standards of those who are building the electronic world."
Smith and David Martin, an assistant professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Denver, will lead the center's initial research; the center has yet to name a director. Stephen Keating, a former reporter at The Denver Post, will run operations at the foundation as executive director.
Research will most likely combine the efforts of other departments at the University of Denver, including law, business and computer science.
The foundation, which will remain unaffiliated with commercial interests, has received its initial support from Denver entrepreneur Peter Barton, the University of Denver, First Data Corp. and the Denver Foundation.