TRUSTe Accused of Breaking Own Privacy Code

Nonprofit Internet privacy organization TRUSTe allowed an outside company to track visitors to its Web site without visitors' permission or knowledge, said Interhack Corp., a Internet security firm.

TRUSTe contracted with Thecounter.com, a subsidiary of Internet.com Corp., to track visitor page views on the http://www.truste.org Web site, according to Matt Curtin, president of Interhack. In addition to using cookies to track visitors, Thecounter.com placed "Web bugs" -- invisible markers one pixel wide with date and time coding data -- onto the pages as well, he said. "That's the critical thing - they're tracking without cookies," he said.

By comparing the unique date-time stamp assigned to each Web bug, Thecounter.com could tell if a particular visitor had been to the site before, as long as the visitor's cache of Web pages -- and Web bugs -- had not been emptied, he said. Further, Thecounter.com could compile a profile of a user by comparing Web bugs potentially placed on any of the Web sites operated by the tracking company's clients, added Curtin. More than 900,000 Web sites use Thecounter.com.

An Internet.com spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Conceding the possibility that the tracking service "may be engaging in other techniques to track Web site visitors and that the possibility exists that Internet.com may be gathering Web site visitors' personally identifiable information," TRUSTe said in a statement posted on its Web site, stating that it had ended its relationship with Internet.com. TRUSTe's statement said it chose the service "solely on the belief that Internet.com was not collecting any personally identifiable information on visitors to the TRUSTe Web site."

"I want to emphasize that, at this point, there is no verifiable evidence that any personally identifiable information was gathered by Internet.com. But, as we advise other Web sites, the best practice in a case like this is to immediately eliminate the possibility that any information is being improperly transferred," said Bob Lewin, CEO and executive director of TRUSTe, in the statement.

TRUSTe can be contacted at +1-408-494-4950 or at http://www.truste.org/.

Internet.com can be contacted at +1-203-662-2800 or at http://www.internet.com/.

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