Web bugs, tiny hidden graphics as small as a single pixel in size, are increasingly being used to secretly gather information on users, according to Internet tracking firm Cyveillance. The bugs can be used to gather information on browsing habits including the user's IP address, the URL of the page, the type of browser used, and existing cookie values.
It's the cookie information which causes greatest concern, say Cyveillance's Brian Murray and James Cowart, the report's authors, because it can be used to create in-depth personal and transactional profiling. The survey found nearly 4% of the one million pages contained Web bugs, a fivefold increase from a similar poll in 1988. But it also revealed that the biggest users are leading brand names, with 16% of the 50 billion dollar companies surveyed using the bugs.
"Perhaps of greatest concern is the fact that some of these brand sites have officially stated privacy policies that include guidelines for sharing customer information with third parties," says the report. "Conflicts between policy and practice highlight a lack of communication within organisations as they struggle to balance the need for information with protecting their customer's privacy. In the end, this discrepancy could result in consumer backlash."