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Of web bugs and privacy

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 24, 2001

(Issue 1934, Internet Grab Bag)

A few weeks back, I received an e-mail from a reader warning me that I had a "web bug" on my web site, specifically the page where I keep my archive of columns.

The word "bug" is a foul one when it comes to the computing world, so I immediately pointed my browser to the page in question – which seemed normal enough. I then looked at the HTML source code for the page, and didn't find anything out of the ordinary.

After corresponding with the reader some more, he told me he was using Bugnosis, a plugin for Windows' versions of Internet Explorer that lets you know when your online activity may be being monitored.

In visiting the Bugnosis web site (, I learned that the term "web bug" is a bit misleading. Bugnosis is published by the Privacy Foundation, and it seems that in the world of privacy activists the term "bug" is used the same way spies use it – to mean a surveillance device.

As it turns out, I subscribe to Netscape's free Hitometer traffic-counting service. In order to determine how many people visit my Computing page each week, I place a small transparent GIF file on my page – a GIF file that actually resides on the Hitometer server. Every time my page is opened, the transparent GIF is downloaded from the Hitometer server, allowing them to track the number of visitors to my page.

So it was my Hitometer code that was causing the concerned reader's Bugnosis to sound an alarm when he opened my page. (You can put visible counters on your page as well, but I chose not to for several reasons – one being that my editors don't need to know how little traffic I generate.)

In addition to a download page where you can get a copy of Bugnosis, the Bugnosis site contains a wide variety of diatribes against ... well, to be honest, against computers.

The privacy advocacy industry has never been overly fond of computers in general, and the last decade's growth of the Internet has done nothing to calm their fearful souls. The Bugnosis FAQ is overtly hostile to computers, and has numerous warnings about how our "privacy" is at risk.

Of course, as popular sci-fi author David Brin wrote in his recent non-fiction look at privacy and computers, "The Transparent Society," the whole idea of anonymity is a very recent invention, a product of modern cities. For the vast majority of history, you were quite simply responsible for everything you did – your neighbors knew where you went, what you did, and who you did it with. It was only the growth of mega-cities that created a situation where an individual could become anonymous – with all the baggage that such a development brings.

So the urgent hand-wringing of the self-appointed "privacy advocates" really needs to be viewed in a larger context, one that makes plain that for most of us, having someone know what Web sites we visit simply doesn't make for a personal crisis. (And lest you be misled by the nonprofit status of the Privacy Foundation, implying all goodness and light, think about just how lucrative the nonprofit world has become since the 1960s when protest was still truly grass-roots. There is big money to be had in the world of advocacy, with six-figure salaries for top administrators now the norm.)

For those who are truly concerned about web bugs and other online privacy issues, you can hide your tracks with services like that of, or at least give yourself a heads-up with the Privacy Foundation's Bugnosis, which will tell you when a web bug is present.

As for me, I'm keeping my free but invisible counter on my page – it's simply another tool to let me know how effective I am at reaching people. In the weeks to come, I will, however, add a caveat to the page letting folks know that the Hitometer link may track their IP address.

The Privacy Foundation folks may not like it, but it seems a fair compromise to me.