Cyber-trackers know who you are

My morning ritual is pretty traditional. Wake up, groggily eat breakfast, read the paper, do the crossword puzzle. Of course, the paper is online and so is the crossword. Instead of having a pile of newspapers in the corner, I just turn off my computer when I’m done.
Our lives are centering more and more around our computers and the Internet. Everything is online, from support groups to corporate sites. Who doesn’t have an e-mail address? At the University, at least, we are each assigned one automatically.
As good as the Internet is, there are some serious privacy issues being debated. I was referred to www.anonymizer.com/snoop.cgi for a sample of what can be seen. The heading of the window is “I can see you,” which made me laugh before it told me I was running a PowerMac, Netscape 4.5, and connected to the Internet via umn.edu.
Site administrators are tracking your tastes, they know where you come to their site from and where you go when you leave. Some sites delve beyond even that information by inserting a cookie into your browser.
Do you know what a cookie is? I didn’t. I use the Internet almost every day, but most times it’s like magic. Ooh, Yahoo! knows who I am! They know who I am because of cookies. Cookies are tracers. They allow site administrators to record the number of times you come to a site, remember your personal information and compile a dossier of your entire trip to a site.
This isn’t to say that cookies are spawned by some master plan to track our activities on the Web. More so, they make certain activities more convenient. The page that starts up with my browser is personalized. The site associates me with certain specifications by using a cookie. Lots of people like that personal touch, otherwise administrators would stop personalizing the page and just make it the same for everyone.
So cookies have a use. Sometimes.
Then I tried a new test. I told my browser to ask me every time a site requested to place a cookie into my browser. On nearly any site with advertising or any site larger than just a homepage, I was asked up to six times per page to accept a cookie. Many times the cookies weren’t sent back to the site either. They were sent to a completely different domain –probably advertising or marketing research.
There are more ways to get information than just by cookies. Java and Javascript can open loopholes for people to access information like e-mail addresses or browsing history. According to the Anonymizer site, Java code can load into your browser and report back to the originating site any information you submit on forms like credit card numbers, passwords, etc. Both programs allow us to do wonderful things online. The reason I can fill in the letters on my morning crossword is because of Java.
Site administrators aren’t the only people with access to sensitive information on the Net either. Metacrawler, a search engine, is linked to a site with “reverse lookup” for people. Let me set this up first: If you call up 411 and ask for a name from a phone number or address, they won’t give it to you. Well, this site will. I tried it and found my own address and name from just entering my phone number.
We need to be educated consumers because the Web isn’t our personal playground. Being on the Web is like being in a store with lots of video cameras. Sometimes it’s like walking down a public street with lots of video cameras — every move you make …
Listservs are not generally thought of in conjunction with the Web, but they’re a bit more related than most people know. Just to clear up any confusion, listservs are e-mail-based discussion groups about anything and everything.
After running searches on names of different friends, I stumbled upon an archived listserv. The one I found happened to be one for people with lupus, an autoimmune disease. My friend does not know that very personal discussions about sickness and treatment are posted on the Web for the world to see, on behalf of my friend.
It doesn’t seem outlandish to think that if something originates on e-mail, it should end on e-mail, but it doesn’t.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. What if a prospective employer decides to run a search of your name in a search engine? In the case of my friend with lupus, they would find discussions of how serious the illness is and how it affects performance. Should they morally or legally decide not to hire my friend because of this? No. But, they probably would.
Also, because cyberspace is constantly in flux and our collective history supposedly vanishes without a paper trail, organizations like the “Internet Archive” have formed. By trying to keep this history concrete, they dredge the Internet constantly, hoarding everything they find. We might figure that our public rants and sorrows will fade with time. Without the Internet, they probably would.
All the stupid things we post on the Net — all our silly homepages — become a part of a vast digital history. Do we really need this much detail?
We can’t treat the Net as though it’s just a magic box. Technology is becoming too organized. Though I’m not a conspiracy buff, I do think we might not realize the ramifications of such a free flow of information on our own futures. It won’t make or destroy most of us, but I don’t want to live in a world where my mistakes, errant ideas and every Web page I’ve surfed are cataloged and searchable.
Sara Hurley’s column appears every Monday.