Privacy group calls for disclosure of 'Web bugs'

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

The proposal was detailed at the Global Privacy Summit conference 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, typically being set up on a Web page as a graphical element that's just 1 pixel by 1 pixel in size - about as large as a period at the end of a sentence of standard-size text.

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" and hidden to users than cookies are, he added.

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

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