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Privacy Caucus To Examine Web Bugs, E-Mail Wiretapping

February 28, 2001 

The bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Privacy Caucus will hear from Internet security and privacy experts on Thursday regarding some of the sneakiest forms of online surveillance technologies in use today.

The panel for Thursday's hearing will examine threats to consumer privacy online via e-mail wiretapping and "Web bugs" – tiny hidden images that Internet ad companies and malicious programmers can embed in Web pages to track consumers as they surf the Web and read e-mail.

Center stage at the caucus' hearing will be Privacy Foundation chief technology officer Richard Smith, who plans to run a live demo of a soon-to-be-released technology that automatically detects Web bugs.

"One way that businesses use Web bugs is to match someone who transacts business at a Web site with banner ads that the person was shown at other sites," Smith said.

Smith theorizes that these new ad-tracking schemes were invented after click-through rates on banner ads plummeted, and that businesses want these correlation statistics to feel better about all the money they spend on Internet advertising.

Smith said Playboy's Web page contains a Web bug that actually probes a first-time visitor's hard drive in an apparent attempt to determine if users have installed Microsoft Office applications such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access.

Smith added, however, that he has plenty of other examples that might be more suitable for Privacy Caucus gathering.

"A congressional hearing room may not be the best place to pull up Playboy Web pages, so I'm going to pass on doing that on Thursday."

Other speakers scheduled to address the caucus include Christine A. Varney, Counsel to the industry-led Online Privacy Alliance, and former Federal Trade Commissioner, and Gary Clayton, founder and CEO of the Privacy Council.

Brian Krebs, Reported by Newsbytes

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