Privacy advocates shine light on "Web bugs"

A privacy group is testing software that will let consumers know when they are being tracked by invisible "Web bugs."

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
2 min read
A privacy group is testing software that will let consumers know when they are being tracked by invisible "Web bugs."

The Privacy Foundation, a nonprofit privacy group based in Denver, is testing a beta version of a browser plug-in dubbed a Web bug detector, which gives people a tool to identify surveillance tags too small to see.

The tracking devices, which are almost never disclosed by the companies that use them, have sparked several lawsuits and even a privacy initiative by the government. Although many companies have consistently said the information collected is kept private, advocates are pushing for companies to reveal when and where they use Web bugs.

About one in 10 pages on the Internet use Web bugs, according to Richard Smith, chief technology officer at the Privacy Foundation.

The group is distributing its plug-in software to only a small group of research guinea pigs but plans to release a commercial-grade version of the product within the next month. The bug detector, which is a browser companion to Microsoft's Internet Explorer for Windows, would be the foundation's first privacy tool.

"We're hoping to raise awareness of tracking on the Internet. I can't think of a better way to do that" than this tool, Smith said.

Installing the software triggers a pop-up window every time a Web surfer encounters one of the bugs, accompanied by a soundtrack that says, "Uh-oh!" Smith acknowledged that the frequent warnings may not be popular with all Web surfers.

Web bugs, or clear GIFs, are tiny images embedded in a Web page or HTML-enhanced email that transmit information to a remote computer when the page is viewed. Businesses operating on the Internet often use them to track visitor behavior or to measure the effectiveness of advertising campaigns. Yet most Web sites do not disclose the use of Web bugs in their privacy policies.

Earlier in the year, the Privacy Foundation issued guidelines to regulate the use of Web bugs. It proposed that Internet advertising companies and Web sites disclose the use of Web bugs wherever they are found online.

Although this software may help educate consumers on Web bug use, it isn't a complete solution. The software merely lets Web visitors know, via a pop-up window on the browser, when and where companies use them. But by sparking awareness about their use, the foundation hopes it can incite Internet companies to reconsider implementing them.

Companies do not warn people when they deploy Web bugs because it's too much trouble, according to Smith.

"In most cases, the use of Web bugs is fairly innocuous, so companies think, 'What's the big deal?'" he said. "The problem is, most people don't know what they're used for."