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Privacy group slams Web tracking "cat"

The Privacy Foundation releases a report criticizing a new Web device that has the ability to track people while they surf.

The Privacy Foundation released a report today criticizing a new Web device that has the ability to track people while they surf.

In an expected blow to the maker of the "CueCat," a digital bar-code scanner being sent to millions of consumers this fall, the Denver-based foundation called for DigitalConvergence to remove a personal tracking feature within the device. It also asked the company to disclose more details about how information collected will be used.

"The Privacy Foundation has serious privacy concerns with the CueCat," said Richard Smith, a well-known privacy expert and chief technology officer of the foundation. "We are asking the company to fix the service now, before it is in widespread use."

Consumers can use the cat-shaped devices to scan bar codes within articles or advertisements in print and be automatically linked to related Web sites. Hundreds of thousands of the CueCats are being given away to consumers through partners such as RadioShack and Wired and Forbes magazines.

As previously reported, privacy advocates have been investigating the scanner and its ability to snoop on consumers. Researchers say the device makes use of an identifying serial number that could trace the actions of an individual and create a detailed database on a specific device's usage.

"This puts the company in a very powerful position to track people," Smith said. "And the question is, what happens with your information at the other end?

"Frankly, the company has not been very forthcoming about their practices."

Outcry against the product comes a week after a security breach at DigitalConvergence's Web site exposed about 140,000 consumers' names, email addresses and ZIP codes, raising the concern of many new members and privacy advocates.

DigitalConvergence, a privately held company based in Dallas, said it is not tracking personally identifiable information, and customer registration information--which includes name, email address, gender, age and ZIP code--is retained only for the purposes of general demographics.

"There is no personal tracking feature in the device and in our software," said Michael Garin, chief operating officer of DigitalConvergence. "And the only information that we can track is aggregate data. We do not know the identity of any individual in our system."

On the issue of notification, Garin said the company added a pop-up window today that says during the registration period that "we cannot and do not track personal information."

But some have questioned the motives of the company's subsidiary, DigitalDemographics, which "is responsible for the creation and analysis of the largest consumer database that provides the unique combination of Web tracking with all forms of media," according to its Web site. Information in the database is aggregated data from broadcasters, publishers and educators.