Are You Bugging Your Customers?

22 April 2000
Hidden spies are keeping tabs on unsuspecting Internet explorers. These spies are invisible tags (also called Web bugs or clear GIFs) that operate similarly to the way cookies operate. Like cookies, Web bugs provide information about Web site users, including the user's IP address, type of browser used for viewing, time of viewing, and a previously set cookie value, explained Web Bug FAQ author Richard Smith.

Junkbusters president Jason Catlett estimates that tens of thousands of pages are bugged in this way. Web bugs use HTML IMG tags, and invisible due to their 1-by-1 pixel size. They can be part of a graphics or banner ad on a web page or hidden among a web page's code--hence the name "clear GIF."

Web bugs are also used for tracking emails. They can benefit the sender by letting him know whether the email was read and when. Additionally, advertisers can use them to learn the IP address of recipients who want to remain anonymous and can see how often an email is forwarded and read. Plus, Web bugs can synchronize a cookie to track who visits a website later. All of these features enable businesses to measure an email marketing campaign's effectiveness.

If you've never seen a Web bug, check some out. Sample code can be seen in Smith's FAQ at, or by viewing a bugged Yahoo profile at Even better, examine code used on other sites. Companies like Quicken, StatMarket, Barnes and Noble and Microsoft have used Web bugs either on their sites or via email marketing campaigns.

Although privacy advocates decry their use, both Web bugs and cookies improve Internet users' surfing experiences. Advertisers use these tools to create a personalized experience each time consumers log on. As a result, consumers won't see the same ad repeatedly across the Net. Further, ads can be targeted to consumers interests when Web bugs and cookies are used to collect information about consumers' habits and interests.

While Internet users appreciate personalization, they're also concerned that companies will use Web bugs and cookies to link their online information to their real-world identity. This has worried consumers so much that Web advertising behemoth DoubleClick was recently slapped with several lawsuits for unlawfully obtaining and using consumers' information.

As a result, information-gathering techniques used on the Internet are being examined closely. In the U.S. alone, several states, along with the federal government, are looking more closely at the topic, and more importantly, are looking at writing protective legislation.

One recommendation for those who use Web bugs and/or cookies: Be sure to let your customers know you're doing it. Privacy is a hot issue, and surfers are consequently growing savvier. Many Web users habitually read privacy policies, and even those sites with adequate policies don't easily earn the trust of consumers. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents to a survey conducted by Odyssey strongly distrust companies' abilities or intentions to keep personal information confidential, regardless of any published privacy policy.

What does that mean to you? It means that earning the trust of the Internet consumer is an uphill battle, and being up-front with them is a healthy way to get on the right track. In the simplest terms possible: Don't hide your bugs and cookies.

Vicky Nolan joined the IGN staff in October 1999. She's best known for inventing fire, the wheel and swiss cheese. She can be reached at