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Associated Press
Tuesday, March 23, 1999

Critics say privacy software may lure users to divulge more personal data

by David E. Kalish

NEW YORK (AP) -- It's a growth industry: Software that claims to protect the identity of Internet users by letting them control how much personal information they allow Web sites to access.

New technology, promoted by software makers such as Novell and Microsoft, is a growing part of the Internet industry's campaign to assure people that confidential information like their age, buying habits and income won't be misused by Web sites they do business with.

So far the software products have received mixed reviews. Some electronic privacy advocates praise the efforts, but others fear the technology may actually entice Net users to divulge more personal data than they ordinarily would by creating a routine for supplying the information to online vendors.

"We're fairly skeptical about a lot of these so-called privacy technologies, because a lot of what it comes down to is marketing", said David Banisar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based privacy advocacy group.

"You provide a lot of information into the system, but then it makes it easier for Web sites to obtain the information."

Some privacy activists said Novell Corp. may be moving in the right direction with a product unveiled Monday that appears to strike a balance between collecting information and protecting it.

The Digital Me software would let Net surfers create distinct online identities, allowing a user to enter a certain profile to show an online retailer, another to share with friends and another that retains anonymity.

Novell hopes its technology will be accepted as a standard for controlling personal information. Financial services giant Citigroup has agreed to test services based on the new technology.

Beth Givens, project director at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer group based in San Diego, praised the Novell software for allowing users to retain their anonymity. But she expressed concerns about making it easier for online businesses to collect personal information about online users.

"I think everyone who participates in these services should think long-term about ... collection of data about themselves."

Microsoft Corp., for its part, bought a privacy software developer last year, Firefly, that makes a product that also encourages people to create online profiles that get sent to Web sites they visit.

The information would only be made available to Web sites that are certified by industry privacy watchdogs such as Trust-E or the Council of Better Business Bureaus' online unit, said Saul Klein, Microsoft's group program manager for Web platform services.

The Microsoft plan is intended to fit in with a broad initiative by the World Wide Web Consortium, a nonprofit group that sets standards for Internet technology to create a common way for Web sites and users to control the information they share with online companies. But Klein said Microsoft hasn't yet decided how to use the technology.

The ability of industry-supported groups to objectively police Web sites' privacy policies came under question Monday when Trust-E, which is financed partly by Microsoft, chided the company over a glitch in its software but took no further action.

That's one reason reason consumer groups say federal legislation is needed to prevent companies from infringing on the privacy of Internet users. A proliferation of software is letting businesses easily "mine" personal data about consumers by sifting through detailed information to more precisely target business prospects.

The technology can track a computer user's recently visited Web sites, the pages the user looked at and even the person's hobbies -- and then link that information to the user's name and address.


Copyright © 1999 by Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.