Can the government see what Web sites I visit?

Keeping Track of Web Activity
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images Texas Rep. Lamar Smith (far right) poses with other representatives and President Bush at the signing of an executive order intended to improve agency information disclosure.

Internet cookies aren't going to tell the government about every Web site you've visited. Some consumer news articles might give you the impression that Internet cookies broadcast everything you do on your computer to every Web site administrator connected to the Internet. The truth isn't quite so frightening.

Internet cookies are small text files that Web sites store to your computer's hard drive -- they aren't computer programs. An Internet cookie gives a unique identifier relevant to a particular Web site to each computer that visits the site. The identifier lets Web sites tailor the browsing experience to your preferences. If you visit an international Web site that's available in many languages, you'd want to read it in a language you know. Using an Internet cookie, the Web site can remember this information. The next time you visit that site, you'll go straight to the appropriate version because the cookie on your hard drive told the site which language you prefer.

If you fill out an online form on a Web site, the site may store that information in the cookie on your hard drive. The personal information can't get into the cookie file unless you choose to provide that information. There's no way for the cookie to search your computer for identification information. In other words, if you're worried about personal information hitting the Web, just don't share it.

A small number of major Web companies provide most of the cookies on the Internet. These companies use the same format for all their cookies, so it's possible for these companies to see when a computer visits different Web sites that use their cookies. For example, Web advertising giant DoubleClick provides cookies for thousands of Web sites. DoubleClick can see if a computer visits different Web sites using their cookies, but it can't see if the computer visits a site that either uses a different Internet cookie or doesn't use cookies at all.

Currently, the U.S. Congress is considering an act that would require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to retain personal data for all its subscribers that the government could then use in investigations. The act is called H.R. 837: Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today's Youth (SAFETY) of 2007 [source: GovTrack]. If this becomes law, ISPs will have to save personal information like names, postal addresses and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses for all its subscribers. While the government wouldn't be able to track a user's browsing in real time, it could request records from an ISP showing all Internet activities on a particular user's account. People who use public computer accounts (like a computer lab in a public library) would be harder to track.

Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas introduced the bill on Feb. 6, 2007. On March 1, 2007, the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security received the bill for deliberation. As of February 2008, the bill is still in the legislative process.

What's the government's policy on tracking Web activity? Find out in our next section -- if you dare.

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