Beware of
Government Web Sites

by Michael Ketcher
The Financial Privacy Report

"When you're surfing the web on your home or office computer, you'd better be careful. A recent study done by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) shows that almost half of the internet sites run by federal agencies collect data about visitors.
What kind of information can they get about you?
Your e-mail address -- if it contains your name, then they have that, too. They know the parts of the web site you visited, the amount of time you spent there, the files you downloaded, your internet service provider, and what geographic area you called from.
But that's just the beginning. Armed with your e-mail address -- or your name -- they could do a search of the internet using Alta Vista or another search engine. If you're an active contributor to news groups on Usenet, they could get copies of your postings.
Let's say hypothetically, you went to the IRS' web site. You downloaded a copy of the IRS form related to reporting foreign bank accounts. If the IRS looks at this information, a nosy IRS employee might wonder why you're interested in such an esoteric subject. He might do a search and find out that you have made postings to a privacy-oriented news group. That make you even more suspicious. Perhaps this information would be turned over to the audit division.
I'm not says the IRS does this. I don't know. I wouldn't put it past them, or any other government agency, to use their web site to spy on people.
What can you do?
In past issues, we've recommended that you use a "web proxy." A web proxy is a web site that protects your privacy. It retains no information about you. You go to the web proxy and then from there you search other web sites. No information is collected about you, unless you give it voluntarily.
The best-known web proxy is the Anonymizer, which we first recommended a year ago. The anonymizer offers a free account, which has a 60-second delay on all browsing. You also can get a paid account, which gives you immediate access. You can reach the Anonymizer web proxy at
The way organizations can track your movements on their web sites is through "cookies." These are blocks of text that a web server passes into your web browser (like Netscape Navigator and other popular browsers). Every time you request a document from a web server, the browser sends the cookie. The cookie is what keeps track of your movements on that web site. If a company or government agency gets your e-mail address, then they use that to match up the information with your name and mailing address.
You can learn to disable cookies at this website:
At another web site you can get a free "anonymous cookie" program that disables cookies. Available from
If you have a business, and you want to learn how to protect the security of your web site, or if you're a web surfer and want to know more about privacy on the web, a new book, Web Security & Commerce, by Simson Garfinkel with Gene Spafford, is the best I've seen.
Web Security & Commerce is a thick book, and a bit technical in parts.
But it has some great information. Consider this advice for small business owners:
"Operating a...web site or merely having networked computers on your premises you at risk for criminal prosecution if those machines are misused...If law enforcement officials believe that your computer system has been used by an employee to break into other computer systems, to transmit or store controlled information (trade secrets, child pornography, etc.), or to otherwise participate in some computer crime, you may find your computers impounded by a search warrant (criminal cases) or writ of seizure (civil cases).
If you can document that your employee has had limited access to your systems, and if you present that information during the search, it may help limit the scope of the confiscation."
There's plenty more good advice in this book, including how encryption works on the internet, the safety of internet credit card and digital payment systems, using blocking software and censorship technology, and what civil and criminal issues you need to understand.
It's available from O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. 800-998-9938 or 707-829-0515 for $32.95, plus $4.00, postage and handling. California residents should add the appropriate sales tax.
Editor's Note: Michael Ketcher is editor of The Financial Privacy Report, P.O. Box 1277, Burnsville, MN 55337. Monthly, 1 year, $144. Single issue $15.


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