By Ken MacLeod, WBZ-TVBy Ken MacLeod

BOSTON (CBS) — Cyber analyst Carl Howe browsed through sweaters from his computer at work Wednesday, just to illustrate how much revealing personal information we scatter into the electronic wind.

“A four-c bagflag,” he says, pointing to a phrase in the “cookies” section of his computer which reveals what one online retailer did with his info.

“Unfortunately, there’s no real regulation for what type of information is gathered and what isn’t,” says Howe, the consumer research director for the Yankee Group.

And that’s exactly why the Federal Trade Commission is now pitching a “Do Not Track” tool for the internet. It would keep e-marketers from pinpointing your wants and needs by vacuuming the intimate details off your browsing history with the goal of targeting you for ads. In other words, it’s the internet version of the 2002 “Do Not Call” list, which banished telemarketers from you dinner table.

WBZ-TV’s Ken MacLeod reports.

“I think it’s a recognition that digital advertising is still pretty much the wild west,” says Howe.

He means that many cyber-marketers have absolutely no shame in using your online sweater search, to snag info that’ll tell them if you’ve got mortgage trouble. In fact, they’re grabbing telling tidbits on almost every facet of your life so they can send you ads for stuff and offer up your profile to others to hammer away at.

“See, that information actually got tagged and recorded,” says Howe, pointing to a line of gibberish on his computer screen which actually represents the details someone just learned about him.

Thing is, the flip side of this issue may have its problems.

Some experts believe that if you block e-advertisers from collecting any preference pointers on people, they might simply blanket all consumers with even more annoying ads for products they have absolutely no interest in.

“The temptation is to say ‘Stop the flood! Don’t give me anything!'” says Howe. “But that may not work too well, either.”

The Feds seem to want three basic things.

First, a specific list of what information should be public and what should be kept private. They also want the process to be transparent so you can get a clear answer when you ask who is gathering what information and why. They also want it to be simple, so you can opt in or out, without going through a maze of complex privacy settings meant to baffle Albert Einstein.

But framing some guidelines and enforcing them will be complicated, and the mechanics of such a system have yet to be worked out.

It would most likely take the form of a browser setting that would inform any website you visit, that you’re off-limits for tracking and/or targeted advertising.

Much easier said than done, as strange firms gobble up valuable knowledge about you with every click.

Truth be told, the FTC’s “Do Not Track” concept was first talked about back in 2007. But the Feds have grown inpatient waiting for the industry to restrict itself.

“It’s not easy to get the players to play nicely with one another — to agree on a standard,” says Howe. “Because they each want to gain a competitive advantage.”

Comments (4)
  1. WillyP says:

    It is so easy to just block cookies, if you are so concerned… Why do we need to waste taxpayer’s money on this? More unneeded govt intrusion, bureaucracy, and bloat.

  2. Ellen says:

    People should really not put private information on the computer at all. Do what we did in the past, go shopping at a store, do all your banking in the bank and not on the computer, and get off the dame Face books and go out with friends once and a while.

    1. Kevin says:

      thanks Ellen. i don’t know how I have been able to survive without your intelligent advice. You are a genius. You have changed my life.

  3. Simon says:

    Much of this data is used to generate targeted advertisements (ie. I want to see ads that interest me). Without targeted advertisements as a source of revenue for website owners, websites will need to make money in some other way. Is everyone ready to pay $$$ to access websites?

    Further, who cares that a company knows you were shopping “four-c bagflag”? Come back to me when your social security number is visible. For now, get offline, wear aluminum foil, and live in a bunker.

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