Just saw this article entitled Invisible Web Bugs Track Your Surfing. The first line reads Big Server is Spying On You. This was even given its own paragraph. UGH! There is a lot of thought that should go into how seriously you take this article. Please, go and read it, and then come back here...
I saw an article where Bill Gates was speaking about privacy on the net, and he made a wonderful point. How many places in the world can you walk out of a store and tell the store-owner, "Forget I was here, and what aisles I browsed. Don't look at which direction I came from. Don't discuss what I did in here with anyone. Don't remember what I bought or how many times I bought it. Don't remember how much I spent or if I used any coupons. All of this is private information and you have no right to it."
I read that [NOT word-for-word....I believe it was in this months Business 2.0 somewhere] and I thought, "He's SO right. He's hit the nail on the head". If I own a business (a web site) and I decide to hire a marketing company to help me expand my business, I'm going to share all kinds of information with the marketing company. I'll tell them all about my customers habits. The only thing I would consider private information is the name and address information I have for them [example, a pharmacy]. I'll tell them everything I can about my customer base, provided that the data doesn't include identity information.
And if the FBI comes by and asks me if Mr. Pipe-Bomb-Builder came in and bought 15 gallons of Clorox, I'm going to tell them that information, probably without even a warrant, because I want to cooperate with them. I would consider that type of information "shared information".
The information in a web-bug is no different from the information I get when the user requests a web page from me. In fact, you can get so much more information about the user than is mentioned in this article. The identifying information is only identifying in specific instances of dedicated IP addresses, which are usually businesses, not private dial-ins. And many businesses do their best to hide even that identification from the outside world through proxies and NAT.
Let me give you an example. You see the web-counter on this page? It garners all of that information in that article. I happen to know that some of the users who hit this page came from AOL. I also happen to know that they found me with search words containing pornographic references. I don't know WHO they are. Without a search warrant I doubt I could find out. But I do know now how certain search engines see my site. This is important information to me, and it doesn't 'belong' to those users. It belongs to the search engine that sent them to me AND that user. That search engine decided to pass on those parameters in the URL. That means they pass it on to me. I pass it on to my marketing company.
Bruno drives up to my store from the South-bound exit off I-44. I see him come in this way, and I log it. 10 more people come in the same exit. You think I shouldn't be allowed to know where they're coming from? How am I supposed to know where to put my billboard? If the FBI comes in and asks me did I see some guy in a pinstripe suit drive in off the southbound exit, can't I tell them? Now how about if Vinny calls me and tells me he's sending Bruno over to get some black powder. Bruno comes over and I don't deal in nblack powder. Now the FBI comes in again...wants to know why Bruno was here. Who's the slimeball now? Me or Vinny? If Vinny was smart he wouldn't go telling me why he's sending Bruno my way. He'd let me work that out with Bruno himself. Now howabout that? Bruno comes in from the South Exit, walks in and ASKS me for black powder straight out. This is different. Should I go sharing that information with my marketing guy? Sure! Maybe he'll tell me that in the past year, I've got 15 guys asking for it. Maybe I should consider selling it. Or maybe I should contact the FBI and have them tap into my store cameras so they can catch these dirtballs named Bruno.
I think there's a degree of privacy that you do give up when you get online. But I think you have the same problem with real life in general. As a webmaster, it's my responsibility to use what info I have to market my publication. If AOL wants to share that info with me, I'll use it. If you as a user don't like it, complain to the people that pass it on. Complain to AOL, Yahoo, Google, Hotbot, etc. Ask them to hide your search strings when they return your search results. But you can't expect people to throw away information you give them, that is unless you want Benjamin Franklin to stay behind to make sure I forget why you was in my store....