Privacy Distribution Mechanisms
|When does a privacy enhancement
become a privacy distribution mechanism?
the guise of providing greater user privacy, Netscape, Microsoft and Firefly
have greatly increased the consumer information that will be available to
A few months ago Netscape,
But before we get into that, let’s step back for a moment and look at
the whole issue of privacy on the internet. This is an area fraught with
emotion, and greatly lacking in hard analysis.
When the web began, no one was thinking much about privacy. The HTTP
protocol provided a way for a browser to specify the identity of the user,
and many browsers sent that information, either in the form of an email
address, or just the initial account name. The server happily collected
the information and logged it in the log files. Early web servers even
had code which could be used to connect back to the sender’s computer
and (depending on the type of computer and the software running there)
verify the actual identity of the user (IDENTD).
These features were primarily used for tracking how many users (as opposed
to browser “hits”) had visited a site, and for contacting someone
who was apparently having trouble (lots of hits to mispelled pages or
some such) and helping them out. Those were the innocent days.
As web use increased, some people started realizing that they didn’t
really want every site they browsed to know who they were. People complained,
and the browser authors stopped sending the user identity. The log files
stopped receiving that information (although the empty identity field
still resides there–filled in only if the user provides a username and
password for a secure site).
Some time thereafter, two new information sources became available to
web site developers. Some browsers began sending a “referer”
field–a piece of information that indicates the URL that the user was
viewing prior to reaching the current web page, and the Netscape browser
(followed by others) began allowing sites to stash a small “cookie”
that would be remembered for a specified period of time, and retrieved
any time the same site asked for it. Although cookies get all the press,
the referer field is actually the only feature capable of exposing personal
information that you’d rather not reveal. But this whole issue has everything
to do with emotion, and very little to do with facts. Let’s look at the
A “cookie” is a computer term for a small piece of information
that gets tucked away somewhere by a program for future retrieval. Sometimes
they are called “magic cookies”. The name implies an informal
storage mechanism, and typically cookies aren’t explicitly stored by the
user, they general contain internal information that the program needs.
Programs use them all the time. When you restart a program and all the
windows come up in the same place as the last time you ran it, when you
bring up a search dialog in your word processor and the text of the last
item you searched for is sitting there pre-selected–those are all examples
of a program stashing away a cookie with some information in it. It didn’t
ask you if you wanted to save that information, it just stored it for
convenience’s sake. We don’t tend to think of those as privacy risks (although
if the last search you did was for “big fat boss”, and the next
person to use your computer is the aforementioned boss, you might think
The cookies stored by your browser are no different. When you go to a
web site, it has the option of asking your browser to store some information
about your session so that it can access it at some future date. That
information is usually a session identifier, or some other data that will
enable the site to recognize you when you return. The site may use it
to remember your login information, or pre-fillin that complaint form
so you don’t have to do it again, or just track the happy fact that you
have returned to the site. The cookie does not, and can not, contain any
information that you haven’t already provided to the site. It also cannot
be passed to any other site, so the information you enter on one site
can not be snarfed by some other site.
Referer fields are slightly different. What they tell a site is how you
got there. Within a site they are often used for tracking your movement
so that the user interface designers can look at how people are using
a site and modify the interface to better give people access to sections
that aren’t being visited. However what is usually of more interest is
the site that you were on before you came to this one. That gives site
owners an idea of which remote links are most useful and/or cost effective.
The catch is that browsers don’t just pass the referer field when you
click on a link, they also often pass it when you type in a URL. So it
is possible that sites will pick up the fact that the previous site you
were visiting was, shall we say, not one that you might like the world
to know you were visiting. It’s rather like stepping out of the adult
bookstore and bumping into your next door neighbor.
Oddly enough, though, the referer fields have never really caught on
as a “privacy risk” in the press. So be it.
As you travel from one site to another on the web, you may be amazed
at how much is being given away for free. Research reports, news, travel
directions… the list goes on and on. And it’s all free! Sites that charge
money for access are few and far between.
Appearances can be deceiving. In fact there are many, many sites on the
web that are charging for access, it’s just that the currency isn’t what
you are used to. Instead of cash, the currency is personal information.
Information about your age, your sex, your marital status, your wealth.
Some sites are subtle (Lucent’s MapsOnUs
lets you use the site several times before it asks for some information
about you (couldn’t do that without cookies :-). Other sites barely let
you past the front page before insisting that you register. Other’s tempt
you with a contest
of some sort. But the end result is the same, you’ve sold some part
of your electronic soul for access to the site. You’ve exchanged one sort
of information for another.
But what will those people do with that information? Will they sell it
to a mailing list? Will it be picked up by spammers? Will tons of junk
paper mail start arriving at work? These questions started the privacy
experts questioning the whole process, although in practice this is no
different than filling out a magazine’s bingo card (and usually far more
rewarding). In stepped Netscape, Microsoft, Firefly and others with the
OPS, a combination of two technologies and a business practice addressed
at giving users more control over their privacy–at least in theory.
The technologies are the vCard standard
from the Internet Mail Consortium, and
Certificates (also known as X.509),
an IETF (Internet Engineering Task
Force) standard. The vCard standard specifies a format for storing and
exchanging personal information (typically the type found on a business
card, but it can cover just about anything). Digital Certificates provide
a mechanism for providing secure storage and transmition of identification
information–the driver’s license of the internet.
The business process that ties these together is a promise from companies
signing up for this standard that they will adhere to certain privacy
As business practices go, that one is pretty weak, and nothing that couldn’t
have been done without all this new technology. So what does the new technology
provide to enhance privacy?
Frankly, nothing. What the OPS does is let you only enter your personal
information only once, so that when a site asks for your information,
it becomes incredibly easy to provide it. Where before you might have
had to fill out a form with home and work addresses, sex, marital status,
income and the like. Now you can just hit the “Okay” button
on your browser and have all that information automatically sent to the
remote system. Where before you might have skipped the non-mandatory fields
in a form, now you’ll send them anyway, it’s not any harder.
In sum, the OPS is really a mechanism to make it easier for consumers
to tell vendors information about themselves. It provides no more control
over privacy information than the current “fill out the form”
mechanism, and is far more likely to increase the distribution of personal
information to multiple companies. It’s not a “bad” technology
in any sense, but the PR that it has gotten is deceptive–OPS does nothing
to enhance privacy.