Government Web Sites
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
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
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: http://www.junkbusters.com/ht/en/cookies.html
At another web site you
can get a free "anonymous cookie" program that disables
cookies. Available from http://www.luckman.com
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:
site or merely having networked computers on your premises may...place
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.