December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Cookies with a catch

Internet privacy advocates want ad serving agency DoubleClick to keep its cookies to itself, and they may get their way. DoubleClick has come under fire from con-sumer groups that oppose its tracking system, which assigns digital ID tags-better known as cookies-to Web browsers and monitors where they travel. Days after DoubleClick responded to these charges with a public service campaign to quell privacy concerns, federal and New York state authorities launched inquires into whether the company improperly collected consumer data.

Word of the probes came after the Electronic Privacy Information Center complained to the Federal Trade Commission about DoubleClick’s privacy practices. Another group, the Center for Democracy & Technology, has launched an e-mail campaign to persuade consumers to opt out of DoubleClick’s tracking program. Both groups worry that the Internet advertising company will use information disclosed by Web sites in its network to build a database of names, addresses, credit card numbers, online habits, purchases, and even search terms, without informing consumers.

The controversy arose when DoubleClick revised its privacy policy and described plans to create a database of user profiles. The database, a compilation of names, addresses and purchasing histories, will be developed by Abacus Direct, a direct marketing firm recently acquired by DoubleClick. Privacy advocates have never liked the merger but failed to block it.

DoubleClick’s tracking system monitors consumers as they move around 1,500 Web sites that are part of its advertising network. Information about these patterns is stored in a database and later used to personalize ads based on browsing and purchasing habits. DoubleClick says the information it routinely collects does not identify users-only browser type, the server hosting the user’s computer, and whether users actually clicked on banner ads. But the Abacus acquisition changed that, says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The Abacus database marries information DoubleClick has collected on users’ identity.”

Sobel says consumers do not have to click on a banner ad to be assigned a tracking cookie-visiting any site in DoubleClick’s network will do that. “No one else is tying behavior to names,” says Duif Calvin, senior retail consultant at iXL, Atlanta.”It’s pretty invasive.”

In response to such criticism, DoubleClick has launched a campaign to help consumers understand how to protect their privacy online. The move is “long overdue,” says Marissa Gluck, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, New York. “It’s wise they’re taking action, but they waited until the last possible minute to do so.”

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