Web bug education

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USATODAY.com - Voluntary guidelines drafted to limit Web tracking tool: Microsoft, the US post office, and others have created a set of voluntary guidelines that require companies to reveal their use of Web bugs and the information tracked by them. Web bugs are images, often invisible in your browser, that track Web site viewers.

My first reaction was one of disbelief. Are companies that use hidden tracking tools trustworthy enough to disclose them? Isn’t that like asking a car theif to let you know before he hotwires your Toyota?

After thinking about it, the idea began to make sense. Several of my consulting clients use Web bugs on their Web sites and in their email without a second thought. These aren’t bad companies and they aren’t trying to comprimise the priviacy of their customers. They have no idea that the reports they read showing them how many people opened their latest newsletter requires technology that violates the basic privacy expectations of their customers.

When I explained to one client that most consumers have no idea that each time they open a newsletter, their email program reports their email address and the date and time the message was opened. Once the client understood that consumers had a reasonable expectation of privacy, they took steps to notify their customers of their tracking methods and gave them the option of unsubscribing from the newsletter.

The anti-Web bug initiative will be ignored by unscrupulous marketers, but it will also serve to educate everyone else.

Tommy
December 11, 2002 12:26 PM

The next version of Outlook, due in the middle of 2003, blocks any externally loaded content in HTML email messages by default. You have to choose to enable it in each message where content is blocked, and there is text explaining about Web bugs.

Adam Kalsey
December 12, 2002 9:37 AM

And Outlook XP can be configured to display all HTML email as text, effectively blocking Web bugs. For browsers, I recommend the Proxomitron [http://www.proxomitron.org/ ]. It's a proxy server that will rewrite Web pages before you see it in your browser. One of the built in features defeats most Web bugs.

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