A new study has revealed that the use of web bugs, or online hidden information collectors, has increased 488 percent in the past three years. On average, a web page is nearly five times more likely to contain a web bug today than in 1998.
Web bugs are hidden graphics embedded in web pages to collect information about visitors to the site. Unnoticed, they can gather information such as the user's IP address, the type of browser used to retrieve the bug and previously set cookie values. Cookies store information that can facilitate in-depth personal and transactional profiling.
The study by Cyveillance used proprietary technology to compare a random sample of more than one million Internet pages gathered during 1998 and 2001. The analysis of the 2001 data revealed that the sites of eight of the top 50 brands, or 16 percent, actually had web bugs directly on their home pages, often just one click away from stated privacy policies.
Web site developers more commonly use the bugs to customize and streamline the user's experience or to gather statistics on the site, but the invisible nature of the bugs serves to feed privacy debates.
Web bugs are used even more prolifically on person web sites, with the highest penetration on free sites created through American Online and Yahoo's Geocities. One example of web bug placement on personal web pages is an advertisement found on many America Online pages which promises to pay $50 for any new American Online subscriber who signs up as a result of clicking through the ad.
Although concerns abound among users who fear web bugs pose a threat to privacy, the bugs provide useful information to businesses that rely on web bugs to help them customize their services to meet the needs of their online customer base. Online book services, for example, track the buying habits of customers and then offer books and other goods that are likely to be of interest to the returning customer.
Web bugs that track geographic information resulting from known information about IP addresses can allow advertisers to provide geographically appropriate ad content to specific users. Much as magazines fill their ad pages with ads from stores in a subscriber's geographic area, online sites can provide advertisements targeted to the geographic base of users.
About Cyveillance International
Cyveillance delivers relevant intelligence mined directly from the Internet. Its technology is configured to locate and categories unstructured content, transforming the Internet into a critical resource. The company is based in the United Kingdom, and is a wholly owned subsidiary of US-based Cyveillance, Inc.