FAQ-Online Privacy Project

What are cookies ?

Cookies are a way that a Web site can tag you with a unique number. The next time you visit, they get that number back and can recall who you were. Many popular Web sites use cookies for perfectly benign purposes. Cookies get trickier when they are used across Web sites. All of the online advertising companies do this sort of thing. When a Web site wants to have advertisements, they include an image that is loaded from the advertiser rather than from their own Web site. Now, the advertiser can potentially trackallthe Web sites you’ve visited, and customized advertisements just for you.As an example, let’s say you have a new baby. You start surfing to various Web sites to learn about products for your child. Although you never explicitly told anyone about your child, the advertiser mightassumeyou have a new baby because you’ve visited certain kinds of sites, and they they might feed you baby-related advertisinganywhereyou surf. While this example doesn’t sound too bad, imagine if somebody borrows your computer and visits some X-rated Web sites.


Do they know my identity in real life ?

If, at any point, you visit a Web site and buy something with a credit card, giving them your real name and address,andthat Web site feeds your name and address to the advertiser, now your online activities can be tied to your real-world identity.That should be illegal.

But it isn’t. Europe generally has much stronger privacy laws than we do, and Web sites that want to sell products in Europe generally have to follow the stronger European regulations. Still, you have very little legal basis to complain about all this information gathering unless a company’s behavior is contradicting any policy it may have posted in public.

Well, I’ll forget the Web and just do my thing in the real world.Although they’re not called cookies, the real world has all the same problems. When you fill out a product registration card or send in for a rebate, you’re putting your name on that product vendor’s mailing list. When you buy a house, your name and address are a matter of public record, and you’ll start receiving mail to sell you all the things a new house needs (a security system, window blinds, yard service, etc.). Every time you buy something with your credit card (or one of those loyalty coupon cards at the supermarket), all that information can potentially be attributed back to you at a later date. My cable TV company asked for my social security number before they would hook me up. What do you suppose they plan to do with it? At least with the online world, you can take steps to preserve your privacy. In the real world, pretty much the only thing you can do is pay cash, which isn’t always possible. (In fact, after having a baby and buying baby products at the supermarket, their automated coupon machine is regularly offering me baby formula coupons, even if I’m not purchasing any baby products on a given shopping trip. For the loyalty card, the supermarket asked me for my address. Are all the baby product mailings I get a result of this? Who knows?)

How can I only do business with vendors that respect my privacy?

Read their privacy policies. Virtually all online vendors have privacy policies these days. For a good example, read theprivacy policyof Intuit. Intuit makes a clear difference between data that can be identified with your name and data that they collect for aggregate statistics only. For an example of a more dodgy policy, here’s an excerpt from a defunct dot-com company:

[Defunct company] does not sell, rent, or trade your personal information with others. However, when one or more of our business partners co-sponsor a service, promotion and/or contest, we may share some or all of the information collected in connection with such service, promotion or contest with the co-sponsor(s).

So, they don’t give out your personal information except when they feel like giving it to a business partner. That’s not very reassuring.

How can I take my privacy into my own hands with these Web sites?

Many of these sites will ask you for your name, your e-mail address, and various demographic information about you (your income level, your age, etc.). Lie. Make up numbers. Make up a fake e-mail address. Unless you believe the Web site is giving you something specific for which they need to know your income (e.g., tax advice), then you can tell them anything you want. Unless youwantto receive e-mail from the Web site (e.g., Amazon.com will e-mail you to say your shipment has been delayed), then make up an address (although try to be careful to make sure it’s not actually somebody else’s valid e-mail address). If a web site wants an email address to verify who you are, perhaps for a password to sign in, you can always make yourself a secondary account with one of the web mail providers.Also, as a side note, if you receive a spam message that includes some kind of “send e-mail to remove@CompleteIdiotsRUs.com to remove yourself”, don’t do it. All you’re doing there is telling them that you have a valid e-mail address and you’ll get more junk later from them.

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