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Opting-Out and the Anti-Spyware Crusade
Jeff Pasternack

Some of you may have noticed that your credit card companies, banks, brokerage houses and insurers have been sending you information about their privacy policies. They are doing this to comply with recently passed legislation that forces these companies to let you opt out of the their various marketing campaigns and those of their "partners." Most notices allow you to opt out by sending a letter or form to the company or calling a toll-free number. That said, the issue really isn't about privacy anymore: for all intensive purposes, privacy vanished many years ago. The issue is about the fair use of information.

There are two basic concepts at play here: opt-in and opt-out. Opt-in means that you won't be sent solicitations, nor will your information be shared or sold, unless you choose for this to happen. Opt-out means that you will receive solicitations, and your information may be sold, unless you choose for this not to happen.

Health insurance companies basically force you to allow them to share your personal information. If you don't permit your information to be shared, you can't be in the plan. While sharing patient information among physicians who are members of the same plan is a valid use, others question the need for insurers to share patient data with marketing partners.

On the web, the issue is no different and many web sites require you to permit tracking and solicitation if you're going to partake in the site's activities. By their very nature, web servers track every single activity that occurs on a web site. Ecommerce-enabled sites must track your activity in order to provide you with even the most basic customer service. In general, the tracking of user activity within a single site raises no objection. The sale of that information, however, does.

Many people don't care what companies do with their personal information and have no interest in trying to control the use of that information. Until recently, opting out of direct marketing databases was simple, but still a chore: send a letter to the Direct Marketing Association and the three different credit bureaus every six months. Now that the Internet is a part of our daily lives (whether you know it or not, like it or not, your information goes over it), direct advertising and the sale of your personal information happens in many ways.

On sites I frequently visit, I can alter the banner ads I see by changing my click stream habits. For example, if I log into a site with a user name and password and click on information related to gardening, the banner ads shown to me the next time I log in will be those for gardening supplies. On the same site, if I click on stories related to auto parts, the next time I log in I will see ads related to autos and auto financing. This method is called targeted banner advertising and it relies upon the cookie to signal the database to serve me ads related to my click stream, which is stored in the database. A cookie is a small piece of code that identifies you to a web site. To see your cookies, do the following:

For Netscape 4.x users, RIGHT click on Start, select Explore and scroll to the Program Files directory. Open it and find the Netscape Directory and open it. Then click on Users and then the user name that appears. Inside that directory you'll find a file called cookies.txt. You can open that file with your word processor or Notepad and see all the cookies you have. Deleting this file will do you no good as other programs generate it. Continue reading to learn more about cookie management.

You can also look in Windows directory for a folder called Cookies and that too will list some of them. Still other cookies are stored in your Temporary Internet Files directory. You can delete these cookies; however, if there are sites (such as Travelocity) that you visit frequently, remember that your username and password are stored in the cookie so you don't have to manually log in again. If you mistakenly delete a cookie, you can always log in manually and the cookie will be re-inserted in your system.

While you can change your browser's settings to not accept cookies, this can be bothersome, as some sites won't let you view them without cookies enabled. There is a nifty freeware program available at that will let you delete cookies you don't want.

This program only serves to clean cookies once they are in your system. By going to you can nip many cookies at the source and prevent them from entering your system. Unlike cookies placed in your system from a specific site where the purpose of the cookie is to track your activity on that site, cookies placed by advertisers are more insidious. Doubleclick, Adforce and many other advertisers will place a cookie in your system to track you as you move around the web, regardless of the site you're on, and serve you banner ads based on your click stream. They build up large profiles based on your surfing habits. By going to the Network Advertising site mentioned above, you can elect to have cookies placed into your system that PREVENT these agencies from placing their cookies.

This method of opting out is relatively new. Internet Explorer and AOL users will find the task completed with one click. Netscape users will find that the tool on this site inserts only a few blocking cookies. To get the rest of the cookie blockers installed, simply click on the links they provide and go to the privacy section of each site. Total time for Netscape users is about 5 minutes.

Another way that solicitations are sent to you is through email. As a veteran of many an anti-Spam crusade (Spam is a 'net term for unwanted email), I am using a variety of email filters to block Spam, however, in the long run, it is a losing battle as indiscriminate marketers worldwide will always send you unwanted email. Users of AOL can go to Parental Controls and engage the filtering tool in the Mail Controls section. Users of Netscape Messenger, Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora and Pegasus can access a variety of filtering tools through their programs' help sections.

In Japan, there is a mounting crusade against email Spam because of the cost to the recipient. Many people in Japan use cell phones to send and receive email and the large telecom firm, NTT DoCoMo, charges its users based on messages received. In Japan and elsewhere, Internet service providers (ISPs) are under ever-increasing pressure to block Spam prior to it hitting the user and with the use of cell phones, handhelds and other Internet appliances on the rise, Spam blocking at the ISP level will become very important. After all, why should we have to pay for receiving advertising?

The most insidious form of advertising and usage tracking, however, is called spyware. In general, spyware is a type of program that is installed on your system without your knowledge. In some cases, the host program informs you of the spyware on the 18th page of the 72-page long license agreement that everyone always reads. These programs can come in games, video jukeboxes and shareware or freeware programs. Coming into your system like a Trojan horse, spyware programs set themselves up into your system and then report your web surfing or program usage behaviors to an outside server when you connect to the Internet.

Before I go any further, those who follow this column may recall that I recently and easily installed a personal firewall called ZoneAlarm Pro ( to protect my system from outsiders trying to come in and to prevent programs inside my system from reaching out. For the record, ZoneAlarm Pro was successful in blocking the spyware from reaching out onto the web and it was because of ZoneAlarm Pro that I even discovered that spyware was in my system.

What I didn't know, however, was how to remove it. And that's where the good people at Lavasoft came in. Lavasoft makes a freeware program called Ad-Aware 5.0 that searches your system for spyware and removes it. You can find more information at By downloading the Ad-Aware 5.0 file and the help file, it will take you approximately 10 minutes to install it, read the help files and run the program.

Just how prevalent is spyware? According to Gilles Lalonde who runs an anti-spyware site found at, there are over 833 programs that use it. If your family uses AOL and a household member has downloaded the AOL Anti-Timer program (this disables AOL's auto-logout system), you might have spyware from Web 3000. If you use PKZip to compress files, you may have spyware from Conducent. If you use CuteFTP, you could have the spyware from Radiate. But the only way to know is to use a program like Ad-Aware in conjunction with a firewall like ZoneAlarm Pro.

There are many ways to view the issues surrounding the fair use of information. Opinions and emotions run the gamut from apathy to passion. At the end of the day, there is no solid definition of right or wrong, merely varying degrees of fairness. Our click stream habits are reflective of our mindset, our quirks and our interests. I would no sooner want someone following me around a shopping mall and tracking my behaviors than I want cookies in my computer. I don't want a stranger in my home reporting on my use of the treadmill with the hopes that I will buy new running shoes once I walk 300 miles. And most certainly, I don't want spyware in my computer.

Jeff Pasternack is the president of Dynamic Consulting Group, a franchise partner of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and author of the TechnoPeasant Review.
If you have questions or comments about this column, please write to him at