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Comet's cursor software tracks users' Web visits

Software that allows users to change their Web browser's cursor into cartoon characters has quietly been tracking the movement of its users across certain sites on the Internet.

Software that allows users to change their Web browser's cursor into cartoon characters has quietly been tracking the movement of its users across certain sites on the Internet.

The free cursor software offered by New York-based Comet Systems assigns each user a unique identifying serial number that is then used to track how many people are using the software and which sites those users visit. The company said that more than 60,000 Web sites support Comet's cursor software, adding that some of those sites pay Comet for that right.

Comet said the serial numbers do not connect users to personal information, especially since no personally identifiable information like email addresses or names are necessary to download the software. The company said that about 16 million people use its cursor software.

"Collecting such statistics is an audit mechanism we use to bill our clients, since some of them pay us on a 'per-cursor-impression' basis," the company said on its Web site, after the Associated Press contacted the firm.

Comet Systems said it collects standard Web log information, including cookies, referer IDs, IP addresses and system information. Still, the company insisted that none of this information is personally identifiable.

"I agree that we are tracking, but we are not tracking the movement of our users [across the Internet]," said Ben Austin, Comet's director of marketing. "What we are tracking are the number of visitors who see cursor impressions at certain sites. That is the only data profiles we have ever made at Comet; it's the only data we have tracked."

Although the company insists it does not collect personally identifiable information about its users, computer privacy experts have always railed against the secret transmission of data that can track a user's movement across the Web. Earlier this year, critics attacked Intel because of a new chip that could transmit a unique serial number to Internet sites for identification purposes.

On the software front, Microsoft also faced the fury of privacy advocates after the company acknowledged that Windows 98 was collecting information from its users' PCs through the operating system's registration process.