September 1, 2009 | By Rebecca Jeschke

Privacy in Online Behavioral Tracking and Targeting - It's Time to Protect Consumers

EFF and a coalition of other consumer and privacy groups called on Congress today to protect Americans' privacy from invasive online behavioral tracking and targeting.

In letters sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and two subcommittees, the groups delivered a legislative primer:

"Tracking people’s every move online is an invasion of privacy. It’s like being followed by an invisible stalker – individuals aren’t aware that it’s happening, who is tracking them, and how the information will be used. They’re not asked for their consent and have no meaningful control over the collection and use of their information, often by third-parties with which they have no relationships."

These third-parties – companies like Omniture, Double Click, AdBrite – can can combine online activity across the Web with offline data, creating detailed profiles and serving ads based on users' behavior. As people increasingly use the Internet for health, financial, and other services, deeply personal information becomes available to advertisers.

Another reason to be concerned about behavioral tracking is the threat of inappropriate data collection by the government, which often gets private information about ordinary citizens from private companies. Limiting commercial tracking of our online activities may also help protect against this threat.

Self-regulation by advertisers is not enough – legislation is needed to protect consumers. The coalition's recommendations outline what these laws need to ensure: that sensitive information is not collected or used for behavioral tracking and targeting, that websites and ad networks can't collect or use data for more than 24 hours without the consumer opting in, and that the data can't be used to affect anyone's credit, employment, or insurance.

The recommendations appear all the more urgent in light of worrying new revelations from earlier this month on the leakage of private and personal information from social networking sites to advertising and tracking companies. (More on this in a post next week.)

We hope that Congress pays close attention to these issues and recommendations.

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