US Group Decries Use of 'Web Bugs'

Companies and online advertisers that use information-gathering "Web bugs" on their Web sites should clearly disclose the presence of the technology to users, according to a Denver-based privacy group that proposed a set of standards to address the issue this week.

The proposal was detailed at the Global Privacy Summit in Washington by the Privacy Foundation, which claimed that many Web sites are using Web bugs to track the activities of visitors without their knowledge. Users "don't have much control over" Web bugs, said Stephen Keating, the foundation's executive director.

Web bugs are similar to the Internet cookies that are widely used to track the online movements of Web users and store information about them, but the bugs are invisible to users. Cookies can be turned off or controlled through a Web browser, but Keating said there are no such management features for Web bugs because they're embedded within the HTML code on a Web page. That means they "can be much more insidious," he added.

The Privacy Foundation's proposal calls for standards under which Web bugs would be clearly shown as visible icons on a computer screen, rather than as small, dot-size images that are nearly impossible to see. The group also supports a requirement that the icons be clearly labeled with the names of the companies that have placed the Web bugs on a site.

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