By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan contributor

Don't look now, but you're being tracked — some might say stalked — whenever you go online. Information about the sites you visit, the things you buy and the topics you search is used to build a detailed profile about you.  In most cases, this is done without your knowledge or consent.

"The Internet has become a serious threat to our privacy," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

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By spying on you, companies can learn about your personal finances, religious beliefs, political affiliation, race, ethnic background, even health problems or sexual preferences.

"Most people have no idea this is going on,"says Sharon Goott Nissim with theElectronic Privacy Information Center. "Your online profile is being sold on the web. It's kind of crazy and it's not harmless."

Right now, this "behavioral tracking" is mainly for marketing purposes, to target the advertising you see online. But the potential for abuse is enormous, since this information can also be used by insurance companies, financial institutions, landlords and prospective employers.

"There are no limits to what types of information can be collected, how long it can be retained, with whom it can be shared or how it can be used," notes Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America.

Do Not Track

The Obama administration wants Congress to pass a "Privacy Bill of Rights" that would require online companies to tell you what information they collect and what they will do with it. Senators John Kerry and John McCain are crafting new digital privacy legislation that is expected to be introduced very soon.

The Federal Trade Commission would like to see Congress create a "Do Not Track" program that makes it easy to tell companies you do not want them to collect your personal information or browsing history.

"We think Do Not Track is an important way for consumers to have more choice over what happens to their information online," says Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.

Online advertisers say they strongly believe in protecting consumer privacy and want people to have a choice as to whether they are tracked online. But the industry believes self-regulation is the way to go.

"We don't want blunt tools used when we think a precise self-regulatory instrument is the right way to find the balance for consumers and industry," says Mike Zaneis with the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

The industry's solution: an advertising option icon that is now included on some online ads. Click on the icon and you can go to a website that lets you opt out from receiving targeted ads (based on your interests) from some or all of the companies participating in this program.

Consumer advocates find this to be far from adequate. Jeff Chester at the Center for Digital Democracy says it's ludicrous to allow companies that make money by collecting your personal information to be the ones who protect your privacy.

Last week, I had a chance to speak to FTC Chairman Leibowitz following his testimony to Congress. He believes people are very interested in Do Not Track and he told me he's excited about where things are headed.

"Does every American know what's happening with every component of their information or data about them? No. At a bedrock level are Americans concerned about this? Yes. And I think the best companies want to respond and be on the right side of the consumer. So we're cautiously optimistic that we'll have some good news in the not too distant future."

"We want to make sure Do Not Track is a real commitment to the American people and not just an empty promise."

By that he means if someone opts out, all tracking must stop, not just information collected for targeted ads. He went on to point out what he considers the first major victory.

"The two major browser companies, Microsoft and Mozilla have endorsed the concept. So we think things are moving in the right direction."

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My two cents
A Do Not Track program would be a major benefit to all of us who do not want to be followed around the Web and have ever-expanding digital profiles based on our browsing patterns. This must be a simple  one-click process that lets you say "don't track me" and have that decision apply universally. In other words, you should not have to opt out as you go from site to site.

Of course, Do Not Track will not solve all privacy problems on the net. That's why a broader privacy bill of rights is so important. It must cover all Web transactions, whether done on a laptop, mobile device or some future technology.

For Do Not Track to work we need a watchdog on the beat. That means the FTC must be willing enforce the rules and go after violators. This cannot be left to industry self-regulation. It cannot be left to software companies that develop browsers. It's simply too important.

Of course, many people would never take advantage of such an opt-out system. And that's their choice. Or they may be willing to give up some privacy in order to access free content or get a discount on merchandise from a specific website or merchant. Again, as long as the user is in control, that's fine.

But certain data, such as financial and health information, should be off limits unless permission is given by the consumer with full knowledge of how that information will be used, stored and/or shared.

In the digital world, data is gold. When it comes to my data, I want the right to control who can access it for their own personal gain.

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