You can opt out of DoubleClick profiles. You can avoid using software that follows your footsteps on the Internet. You can crumble every cookie before your browser takes a nibble from it. And still you are at risk from the next site, the next advertiser, the next marketer who sees dollar signs in your data.
One thing is certain: online data gathering will not go away. Too many Web sites are depending on the revenues from selling user data or delivering specific demographics to advertisers. The question is whether you'll have any say in what happens to your information.
"The real issue is, who's in control of my online profile, who can access it, and who's selling it?" says Germanow. "When I show up at a travel site, do I want them to know who I am and what frequent flyer program I belong to? Yes. When I'm doing research on AIDS because I have a friend in the hospital, do I want that as part of my profile? I don't think so."
Today, even vendors who sell products for protecting anonymity admit that there is no easy solution for e-commerce. Programs like PrivadaProxy and Zero-Knowledge's Freedom can protect your identity while you browse, chat, or send e-mail, but, according to Privada's Jackson, "As soon as you decide you want to buy something, you're left unprotected."
Both companies say they are working on schemes to allow consumers to shop anonymously and expect to introduce products within a year. Zero-Knowledge's Austin Hill sees a future in which shopping agent software can assure a Web site that you have the credentials to make a purchase, then negotiate what data you are willing to give up in return for a good price.
"What if you had the most accurate version of your profile under your lock and key?" asks Hill, president of the firm. "Your credit information, EBay reputation, frequent flyer miles, how much shopping you do. You'd be able to leverage that data, build relationships with merchants, and still maintain your privacy."
Hill believes that consumers need to start thinking about Internet privacy the same way they think about viruses. "You don't use a computer unless you have antivirus software," he says, "and you shouldn't give away data without protecting yourself. Every time you fill in a Web form or a registration card, make sure that the data is 100 per cent necessary for completing the transaction, and that the company will protect it." When enough consumers refuse to give away their personal information for free, he adds, merchants will have to respond.