September 20, 2002 12:49 PM PDT

Search firm takes heat for sharing data

Norwegian-based Fast Search and Transfer, a relatively new talent among search engines, is under fire from privacy advocates who say it's violating its country's laws by collecting data on visitors and sharing the information with third parties.

In a complaint filed this week with the Norwegian government, Public Information Research (PIR) charged the search provider's showcase site, AlltheWeb, with failing to notify visitors that it uses tiny electronic tags to monitor search queries in partnership with online portal Lycos and DoubleClick, an advertising technology company. The privacy watchdog said that the practice breaches Norwegian laws requiring companies to disclose if personal data about consumers is shared with third parties.

"We're asking the government to make a determination as to whether AlltheWeb is obligated to disclose on their site the fact that they share search terms with DoubleClick," said Daniel Brandt, president of San Antonio-based PIR.

Peter Gorman, a spokesman for Fast Search and Transfer's (FAST) AlltheWeb, said that the company is newly aware of the problem and plans on issuing a corrective measure soon. He said FAST will either post a privacy policy that makes clear to people that information is being collected, or it will work with partners Lycos and DoubleClick to remove the tags, otherwise known as clear gifs.

DoubleClick, which recently settled privacy infringement claims by several state attorneys general, said that it does not have a direct relationship with FAST's AlltheWeb, despite being named in the complaint and collecting data from clear gifs located on the site. It said that for several years it has worked with Lycos--which licenses FAST's technology for search results--to deliver advertising.

"We're investigating the situation," said DoubleClick spokeswoman Jennifer Blum.

The complaint renews old concerns about the data-gathering practices of Web sites that aim to collect exhaustive profiles on visitors to deliver personalized pages and advertisements. Despite claims by many Web operators that data collected is anonymous, privacy advocates fear that profiles can increasingly be linked to personally identifiable information and ultimately subject to government investigations.

At the heart of PIR's grievance with AlltheWeb is its sensitivity about the data transmitted to Lycos and DoubleClick and the possibility that this information can be linked to the user. Because the site hosts nearly 2 million queries a day, it collects vast amounts of data. At the very least, PIR asks that AlltheWeb notify visitors.

The clear gif, located at the bottom of each search results page on AlltheWeb, sends data on the search terms entered by users and their IP (Internet Protocol) numbers, IDs that can be increasingly associated with individuals, he said. In addition, DoubleClick will set a "cookie," or electronic surveillance tag, on visitors after a set period. The DoubleClick cookie, with a unique ID number, reads all subsequent DoubleClick transactions when people surf the Web.

"It is especially serious because this information is transmitted quietly to DoubleClick with every search results page, whether or not the searcher ever clicks on any ad served by DoubleClick," according to the complaint. "In other words, it appears that DoubleClick is building up their profiling capacity at a rate of 2 million queries per day, many of which will end up with unique ID numbers from their cookie."

DoubleClick's Blum denied that the company is building up a consumer data because, she said, it does not sell a profiling product.

FAST, which operates the AlltheWeb site to feature its search technology, licenses its navigation software to numerous partners in the United States and Europe, including Lycos and eBay. Lycos could not be immediately reached for comment.

In the past, DoubleClick has set clear gifs on Lycos search pages to gauge the popularity of certain search terms before it started selling or serving ads on the site. Lycos has a privacy policy posted on its site that discloses the use of clear gifs.

According to Brandt, DoubleClick may be on the hook for its third-party connection to AlltheWeb because the company was recently given a mandate, as part of its privacy settlement, to work with partners in notifying users of data-collection practices.

Blum said that DoubleClick does not have a concrete deadline to begin such work, but the company already urges partners to disclose their practices.

For now, FAST is working on a solution.

"We are exploring our options," said Peter Gorman, a FAST spokesman. "We're working with Lycos (and DoubleClick) to not track visitors, or we will add our own privacy policy."

 

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