Microsoft held back on privacy in IE8, says group

Microsoft held back on privacy in IE8, says group

Summary: Microsoft took a conscious decision to make InPrivate browsing opt-in rather than opt-out, and so avoided taking a hit to its ad business, according to Privacy International

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TOPICS: Security
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Microsoft considered building default privacy into its Internet Explorer 8 web browser, before rejecting the idea, according to a privacy campaign organisation.

The software giant told Privacy International in a meeting in 2008 that it was weighing up the pros and cons of enabling its cookie-cleaning InPrivate Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) browser feature by default, according to Simon Davies, the director of the organisation.

"I had a meeting with Microsoft before IE8 came out," Davies told ZDNet UK on Monday. "Microsoft took a conscious decision not to shift to an opt-in framework."

IE8, launched in March 2009, is the first Microsoft browser to have a privacy mode. The InPrivate feature allows users to opt into the service — which discards temporary Internet files, form data, cookies and usernames and passwords — once a browsing session has closed. During a browsing session, IE8 does not discard cookies or browsing history.

Davies said that Privacy International had not expected Microsoft to make its InPrivate feature enabled by default in the browser, as that could have affected the corporation's advertising business model. Microsoft acquired online advertising company Aquantive in 2007 for $6bn (£3bn).

"Parts of Microsoft were interested in making the mode default, but we assumed the argument would be lost, as it would be impossible to convince managers of the business case," said Davies.

Some internet advertising models use behaviourally targeted advertising. A user's browsing is monitored by a particular website, and adverts are served to the user based on what that user has viewed on the website. Very often, behavioural advertising relies on the website dropping a small application called a cookie onto the machine, as a means of identifying that system to serve adverts to the user.

However, cookies can be used by third parties and organisations to build up long-term browsing histories of users and gather data which is valuable to marketers.

Internet Explorer general manager Dean Hachamovitch said in a blog post on Sunday that InPrivate allows users to counter third-party cookies.

"Users can keep browsing information from going to sites they don't actually visit directly," Hachamovitch wrote. "IE determines the potential tracking sites on the list based on the sites you browse to directly and how those sites were written."

The Microsoft executive said that no perfect browser privacy feature was available, as web browsing is "fundamentally an information exchange."

"Your web browser offers information in order to get information. That information can identify you," he wrote. "Because some of the technologies that can be used for tracking are also essential today for basic functionality, there is no 'Just give me perfect privacy' feature."

Topic: Security

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com. He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

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