Holiday e-shoppers face privacy threats

Looking at who is naughty and nice online, advocates say e-tailing sites siphon off too much personal info from shoppers

A privacy watchdog group says consumers taking to the Net to do their holiday shopping may get more than they bargained for -- a loss of privacy.

The Electronic Privacy Information Centre's "Surfer Beware III" report says top shopping sites are using data-gathering techniques that have severe consequences for personal privacy.

According to EPIC, 87 of the 100 e-commerce sites surveyed use cookies, small files hitched to a user's PC that allow sites to customise content for the consumer, but that can also track where consumers surf online. EPIC also found that 35 of the top sites have profile-based advertising technology. Several industry watchdog groups recently began a campaign against such tools, which use data to tailor ads to a consumer's demographic and psychographic profile.

While most of the sites had pages listing privacy policies, 18 did not. And of the privacy policies listed, many were "confusing incomplete and inconsistent", the report said.

The study comes amid a flurry of activity surrounding consumers' online privacy. Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission announced the creation of an advisory committee on online access and security. And Friday, the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, made up of US and European consumer groups, spoke at the EU/US Summit in Washington, DC, discussing the need for personal data protection. "More steps will be needed to be taken in the US to protect online privacy for consumers," EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg said.

In a press conference Friday, Rotenberg and other privacy advocates expressed particular concern about the lack of so-called access rights, which give consumers the right to see what data corporations have collected about them. "US companies have resisted the right to access, claiming that it's expensive and burdensome to them. But it's a fundamental and fair part of information access," said Junkbusters President Jason Catlett.

Rotenberg said that while the FTC was taking some steps on privacy matters, the government agency was not moving fast enough. He said EPIC is reviewing documents regarding the FTC's record on responses to consumer complaints, and was not pleased with the findings.

EPIC sued to obtain the documents in July, and will be releasing a report on its findings early next year. "The FTC is still moving too slowly. US companies still fall far short of what we be considered a basic right of the European consumer," he said.

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