Research released Monday shows that the use of surveillance technology popularly known as Web bugs is on the rise, putting online companies in a precarious position with the consumers they're snooping on.
In the last three years, Web bug use has grown nearly 500 percent, according to Cyveillance, an Internet technology and analysis company. The flood can be traced to the number of secondary pages carrying the tags, including personal Web pages linked to large community sites and Internet service providers, the report found.
The research highlights a growing conflict between policies and practices at many Web businesses, a potential cause for consumer backlash. It also validates efforts by privacy advocates to combat the rising use of such surveillance.
Earlier this year, the Denver-based Privacy Foundation introduced free software that helps consumers detect when a site or email contains a Web bug. Idcide, WebWasher, Adsubtract and Intelytics also offer products that either can prevent Web sites from placing electronic files known as cookies on their computers or block Web bugs altogether.
Web bugs, or clear GIFs, are nearly undetectable tracking tags used mainly by marketers to monitor consumer habits online. Many site operators and Net advertising companies place these markers on their pages to collect information--such as which pages are being read most often--that lets them deliver targeted information to consumers.
Too small for readers to see, the bugs can be more invasive. They can capture a visitor's Internet Protocol address, browser information and Web address. They also can be linked to cookies, which can contain personal information such as name and email address.
Internet tracking and security company Security Space in a monthly report identifies companies that benefit from the use of Web bugs, including online advertising networks DoubleClick and Linkexchange.com, as well as Web giants Yahoo and America Online.
Cyveillance's study compared a random sample of more than 1 million Web pages gathered in the past three years. Its analysis of data revealed that the sites of eight of the top 50 brands, or 16 percent, used Web bugs directly on their home pages, often just one page from stated privacy policies. In addition, it showed that nearly 95 percent of the pages containing the tags also contained a top brand name.
"An association with Web bugs has the potential to seriously undermine...efforts" to create a trusting relationship with consumers, Panos Anastassiadis, CEO of Arlington, Va-based Cyveillance, said in a statement.
The research also showed that consumers who operate personal Web pages from major community sites could unwittingly have bugs attached to their pages because of third-party relationships.
"The presence of Web bugs on personal pages is a result of framing, advertising tools and utilities provided by large, sophisticated hosts or third parties--most often large community sites or ISPs," according to Cyveillance. "Most personal page owners are likely unaware that the Web bugs are present and collecting information from visitors."