The Wall Street Journal continues its in-depth report, “What They Know,” about the state of surveillance in the United States and how these surveillance programs affect individual privacy, which I blogged about yesterday. In the latest installment, the Journal discusses the issue of online collection of consumer data and how it can be reduced via online browser settings, and a controversy at Microsoft about such data collection.
In early 2008, Microsoft Corp.’s product planners for the Internet Explorer 8.0 browser intended to give users a simple, effective way to avoid being tracked online. They wanted to design the software to automatically thwart common tracking tools, unless a user deliberately switched to settings affording less privacy.
That triggered heated debate inside Microsoft. As the leading maker of Web browsers, the gateway software to the Internet, Microsoft must balance conflicting interests: helping people surf the Web with its browser to keep their mouse clicks private, and helping advertisers who want to see those clicks. […]
[In the end,] Microsoft built its browser so that users must deliberately turn on privacy settings every time they start up the software.
Microsoft’s original privacy plans for the new Explorer were “industry-leading” and technically superior to privacy features in earlier browsers, says Simon Davies, a privacy-rights advocate in the U.K. whom Microsoft consulted while forming its browser privacy plans. Most users of the final product aren’t even aware its privacy settings are available, he says. “That’s where the disappointment lies.” […]
Web browsers like Internet Explorer can play an important role in protecting privacy because the software sits between consumers and the array of technologies used to track them online. The best-known of those technologies are browser “cookies,” small files stored on users’ computers that act as identification tags for them when they visit websites. […]
All the latest Web browsers, including Internet Explorer, let consumers turn on a feature that prevents third-party browser cookies from being installed on their computers. But those settings aren’t always easy to find. Only one major browser, Apple’s Safari, is preset to block all third-party cookies, in the interest of user privacy.