August 25, 2000
We jump quickly into discussion of different parties and many terms; we'll give an overview of each of these to ensure that readers can understand this report irrespective of how closely they follow the Internet.
The TRUSTe Web site logs IP addresses and browser types for systems administration purposes and these logs will be analyzed to constantly improve the value of the materials available on the website. We do not link IP addresses to anything personally identifiable. This means that a user's session will be tracked, but the user will be anonymous.
TRUSTe's opt-out policy is commendable; it's actually an opt-in policy. We argue that this is the only workable means of protecting online privacy. However, TRUSTe's implementation of the opt-in policy would seem flawed if any information is being sent to any third parties without the user explicitly allowing it.
TRUSTe provides its visitors the option of opting-in as opposed to opting-out. Therefore, when there is a choice of using information for purposes other than what the information was originally collected for, TRUSTe will present the user with an opt-in box. For example, when visitors go to the "enter the drawing", they are presented with an opt-in box, asking if they would like to receive information about TRUSTe. By default, the box is NOT checked. If visitors check the box, a TRUSTe informational package will be emailed to them.
When viewing the TRUSTe web site, information about the user moves around the site and the user's computer is being sent to TheCounter.com, which bills itself as a free hit counting service. However, there's much more to this system than one might think initially.
This system's implementation requires that some object--in this case, a tiny invisible image, also known as a ``web bug''--be fetched from a server run by TheCounter.com so that a ``hit'' can be recorded.
Though this tends to suggest that the privacy implications of using such a system are much less significant than in other systems, where cookies can live for years, we would do well to remind ourselves of a few facts. In addition to the cookie and the values placed in the web bug's query string, the web server learns other information about the user and the client software by the nature of the IP and HTTP protocols, including:
None of this is itself a big deal, but when considering the bewildering number of possible combinations, this means that a great deal of information about the client and its user is being directed to TheCounter.com. The fact that the cookie will last only as long as the browser is running in a given session, i.e., until it's closed or crashes means that it's not possible to put all of this information into a single dossier from browser session to browser session using the cookie.
We cannot help but wonder about the current state of the art of stylometry and how effective such techniques would be in linking a profile from one browser session to the profile from another browser session for the same user. Irrespective of the technology available today or in the future, the fact of the matter is that today the system is capable of limited profiling.
Careful examination of the
Last-Modified HTTP header set in
responses coming from c2.thecounter.com reveals that the header is
being in a used contrary to its stated purpose , as
demonstrated in Appendix D. The Meantime
exploit  describes how to use this behavior to track
users across sessions.
Furthermore, because essentially any site can use TheCounter.com, there is no guarantee that some other site will not send something like a name, address, or telephone number to TheCounter.com with the same cookie that was used to report activity on the TRUSTe web site.
|id||The site's ID number for TheCounter.com.|
|size||The width of the client's screen, in pixels.|
|colors||The number of colors the monitor can display.|
|referer [sic]||The URL of page visited before the bugged page.|
|java||Whether Java is enabled.|
Apparently in violation of its opt-in policy, TRUSTe's site is constructed such that information is sent to a third party without the user's consent. More importantly, by contract, this information actually becomes joint property of a third party (see item 12 of TheCounter.com's Terms and Conditions of use, reproduced in Appendix A).
Industry attempts to limit protections to information like a name or telephone number that is reasonably unique and therefore easy to link to the individual fail to acknowledge that a great deal of damage can occur when a detailed pseudonymous dossier is collected. (Many organizations, including TRUSTe, call information that does not contain an individual's name ``anonymous'', though where there is another unique token in its place--such as a cookie, the system isn't anonymous, it's pseudonymous. This is an important distinction, especially in light of what kinds of analysis can be performed on pseudonymous data .)
Though each of the participants in building the dossier might be committed not to provide any personally-identifiable information, it only takes one data collector that doesn't have such a commitment to add a real name (or other personal identifiers) to the pseudonymous profile. Such exposures can be intentional by combining anonymous information from one database with non-anonymous information in another database or changes in policy which allow the collection of non-anonymous information into the same profile that was formerly anonymous. Such exposures can also take place unintentionally through human error or some sort of system failure.
Thus, the industry's view of privacy stands in stark contrast with the view of Americans who use the Internet. A recent report has shown that American Internet users have grave concerns about their privacy online and the majority believe that Web tracking invades their privacy . The level of media interest in Internet privacy issues gives additional support to the claim of the issue's importance to end users.
Collection of this kind of information is a dangerous game. Unfortunately, those who profit by the collection, analysis, and distribution of information bear almost none of the risk.
Building systems that collect information about people--even ``anonymous'' information--seems a dangerous proposition. At the very least, protecting privacy--real privacy, by allowing individuals to determine for themselves who may know what--is a very complicated problem and might well be beyond our reach given the current state of technology and economics.
By using thecounter.com service you agree to these terms and conditions.
1. We reserve the right to change these terms and conditions without notice by posting the changes to our Web site.
2. We or you may terminate your account and remove your site from our listings at any time for any reason.
3. The following types of sites are NOT allowed to participate in thecounter.com: sites encouraging illegal activity or racism, sites providing instructions or discussions about performing illegal activities, sites that promote or utilize software or services designed to deliver unsolicited email, or any other sites we deem to be inappropriate.
4. You agree not to change thecounter.com programming code.
5. You have read our general copyright notice and terms and conditions and you agree to them.
6. Users acknowledge and agree that their Web site information (name, URL, traffic counts, etc.) may be utilized by thecounter.com. Possible uses include (but are not limited to) lists of the busiest sites, lists of member sites, general promotional uses, etc.
7. You agree to use our services at your own risk. Our services are provided on an "as is" and "as available" basis. You agree that you have made your own determination regarding the usefulness of the service. We disclaim all warranties including, but not limited to, warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose.
8. We are not liable for damages, direct or consequential, resulting from your use of the service, any failure to provide service, suspension of service, or termination of service. We do not guarantee the availability of the service. You agree not to hold us responsible for data loss or interruption of service of any kind.
9. We retain ownership and all rights to thecounter.com logos, trademarks, software, trade secrets, databases, reports, and Web site.
10. If this agreement is terminated by us or by you for any reason, you agree to remove our code, logos and trademarks from all of your Web sites and other items.
11. YOU AGREE TO DEFEND, INDEMNIFY AND HOLD US HARMLESS FROM AND AGAINST ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, LOSSES, LIABILITY COSTS AND EXPENSES (INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO ATTORNEY'S FEES) ARISING FROM YOUR VIOLATION OF THIS AGREEMENT OR ANY THIRD-PARTY'S RIGHTS, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO INFRINGEMENT OF ANY COPYRIGHT, VIOLATION OF ANY PROPRIETARY RIGHT AND INVASION OF ANY PRIVACY RIGHTS. THIS OBLIGATION SHALL SURVIVE ANY TERMINATION OF THIS AGREEMENT. OUR LIABILITY WILL NOT EXCEED THE PURCHASE PRICE OF THE SERVICES.
13. This Agreement will be construed and enforced in accordance with the laws of the State of Connecticut without regard to its conflict of law principles. Venue for any dispute under this Agreement will be the State of Connecticut, USA.
Set-Cookieheader in the response.
$ telnet c2.thecounter.com 80 Trying 220.127.116.11... Connected to c2.thecounter.com. Escape character is '^]'. HEAD /id=1323213&size=1280&colors=8&referer=&java=false HTTP/1.0 HTTP/1.0 200 OK Date: Wed, 23 Aug 2000 21:00:33 GMT Server: TheCounter/2.0 Last-Modified: Wed, 23 Aug 2000 21:00:33 GMT Pragma: no-cache Cache-control: no-cache, must-revalidate Expires: Wed, 23 Aug 2000 21:00:33 GMT Set-Cookie: VTC1323213=0;PATH=/ Accept-Ranges: bytes Content-Length: 43 Connection: close Content-Type: image/gif Connection closed by foreign host.
Observe that this is not the case in TheCounter.com's use of the header. Each time the same request is made, the value is different, thus, that is not the correct ``last modification'' time of the resource. Additionally, the Pragma and Cache-control headers direct caches not to cache this information; each time the resource is requested the client must make contact with the c2.thecounter.com server.
Here we make several sequential requests--all made within a period of less than five seconds--or the same URL. Observe the Last-Modified header in each response. Discussing this matter with Internet.com folks, there seems to be a reasonable explanation for this behavior. Though still violating the purpose of the header, the Last-Modified header always matches the Date header. This is (yet another) attempt (in addition to the Pragma and Cache-Control headers) to ensure that the object will not be cached. As it turns out, it would seem that c2.thecounter.com, although having only one IP address, is actually a group of servers, and if their clocks are out of synchronization, it could cause series of requests to exhibit the same behavior as that which we'd see in the Meantime tracking exploit.
So are they tracking? The system seems technically capable of doing so--within some margin of error--but we have no reason to believe that they are. Herein lies the issue: if the system is capable of tracking, whether by design or by oversight, how do we know whether such is taking place?
HEAD http://c2.thecounter.com/id=1323213&size=1280&colors=8&referer=&java=false HTTP/1.0 HTTP/1.0 200 OK Date: Thu, 24 Aug 2000 15:43:53 GMT Server: TheCounter/2.0 Last-Modified: Thu, 24 Aug 2000 15:43:53 GMT Pragma: no-cache Cache-control: no-cache, must-revalidate Expires: Thu, 24 Aug 2000 15:43:53 GMT Set-Cookie: VTC1323213=0;PATH=/ Accept-Ranges: bytes Content-Length: 43 Connection: close Content-Type: image/gif HEAD http://c2.thecounter.com/id=1323213&size=1280&colors=8&referer=&java=false HTTP/1.0 HTTP/1.0 200 OK Date: Thu, 24 Aug 2000 12:43:18 GMT Server: TheCounter/2.0 Last-Modified: Thu, 24 Aug 2000 12:43:18 GMT Pragma: no-cache Cache-control: no-cache, must-revalidate Expires: Thu, 24 Aug 2000 12:43:18 GMT Set-Cookie: VTC1323213=0;PATH=/ Accept-Ranges: bytes Content-Length: 43 Connection: close Content-Type: image/gif HEAD http://c2.thecounter.com/id=1323213&size=1280&colors=8&referer=&java=false HTTP/1.0 HTTP/1.0 200 OK Date: Thu, 24 Aug 2000 15:56:20 GMT Server: TheCounter/2.0 Last-Modified: Thu, 24 Aug 2000 15:56:20 GMT Pragma: no-cache Cache-control: no-cache, must-revalidate Expires: Thu, 24 Aug 2000 15:56:20 GMT Set-Cookie: VTC1323213=0;PATH=/ Accept-Ranges: bytes Content-Length: 43 Connection: close Content-Type: image/gif