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The Internet - Privacy Issues

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The technology of the Internet provides a great possibility for the invasion of individual privacy. The Clinton Administration policy is to have consumer groups and the electronic commerce industry develop privacy policies that are enforced by private non-profit organizations. But Lori Fena, executive director of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, cautions that privacy is being invaded. Researchers can use autonomous agents like Web spiders and robots to gather data without permissions. Users reveal information voluntarily and involuntarily. Voluntary revelations come in the form of surveys and registrations filled out by the individual. Involuntary revelations come from software developers ability to track the user using "cookies," information files that are deposited on the hard drive of the Internet visitor. Cookies "tell" the web site when the visitor returns. Cookies also track what other sites the person visits, providing information on interests and online habits that can be compiled into profiles of hobbies, buying habits, financial status, health, and who they associate with online.

The Federal Trade Commission disagrees with the Clinton Administration that business can regulate itself. Internet businesses are asked to tell consumers that they are collecting personal information, what they are going to do with it, and how consumers can refuse. In 1997, the FTC searched the Internet for privacy problems. Code named the "Big Surf," the investigation reported that 90 percent of the 1,400 sites examined collected personal information from visitors, but only 14 percent disclosed how this information would be used. The FTC is expected to draft a bill calling for clear Internet privacy standards. Presently, the FTC files charges against companies who promise not to give out personal information collected online but do so.

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