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Whose hands is your info in?

When Charlie McHenry saw a Wall Street Journal story last week detailing how the largest U.S. websites have quietly installed more than 100 tracking tools in users' computers to monitor their Web activity, he wondered why it took so long for the issue to gain traction.

"I'm glad to see discussion is under way," said the Central Point strategic communications firm McHenry & Associates employee. "I think there is a fine line between invasion of privacy and profiling and targeting individuals."

Internet cookies, beacons and other tracking elements now are routinely installed on Web visitors' computers, representing the leading edge of a lightly regulated, emerging industry of data-gathering, the Journal reported. Data gleaned from such surveillance is used to sell data about, and predictions of, people's interests, often to advertisers, who in turn market products to match those interests.

Sites based far away can reach deep into the heart of users' computers or smart phones with Web access, even in Southern Oregon. While McHenry has concerns about privacy and data-mining, he, too, has used the tools, albeit on sites that he trusts.

"I work on both sides of the equation," McHenry said. "My agency places highly targeted Facebook and Google ads."

The Journal examined 50 sites, accounting for roughly 40 percent of U.S. page-views, and wound up with 3,180 tracking devices installed on its test computer.

The study showed more than 2,200 of those tracking tools came from 131 companies that, for the most part, are in the business of following Internet users to create databases of consumer profiles that can be sold. Google, Microsoft and Quantcast Corp. topped the list of tracking tools.

Alan Oppenheimer, founder of Open Door Networks in Ashland, has made his living developing computer security systems. He says it's important to differentiate computer security — protecting the data in your computer — and privacy issues, including protecting where you go online.

When it comes to privacy, he said, some computer users throw caution to the wind, while others are looking for hidden cameras in their own homes.

"We have the Facebook generation that will pretty much post anything and everything about themselves," Oppenheimer said. "The what-I'm-doing-now crowd has led to sites such as robmyhouse.com, whose purpose is to let other people know when they are going on vacation."

The other extreme he describes may take center stage when the debate takes shape.

"The other way of thinking goes way overboard — Big Brother is watching 100 percent of the time and they have to live in a bunker," Oppenheimer said. "When they go out of the house, the government and Big Brother are watching them."

He categorizes websites in three categories: The first includes malicious websites that intentionally go after your private data; the second is the incompetent variety, where poor security allows hackers to steal information such as credit card numbers; the third type includes legitimate, well-run sites.

Just because a site is gathering information on users doesn't necessarily make it a threat. As an example, he points to Google, whose intentions he considers positive."Nobody is perfect though," Oppenheimer said. "There can be privacy breaches when someone takes over a site, but Google makes very few mistakes."

He defends tracking components as a tool for more effective marketing and efficient shopping.

"Good marketing is difficult and unusual and should be encouraged," Oppenheimer said. "Apple's iAd network is very well done and a network focused on individuals. It's unobtrusive so it doesn't annoy customers."

He notes that Amazon.com, for example, tracks purchases so that it can suggest future merchandise.

Advertising or marketing ploys — such as pop-ups with unwanted sales pitches — can have a reverse and detrimental effect.

"If you're annoyed by an ad, you might never buy that product and put it on your blacklist because of the ad," he said.

Tracking elements that pick up on a person's physical location can be either spectacularly timely, or downright spooky. If you're walking around with a smart phone in your pocket, there's no telling who knows your exact whereabouts.

"If you're in San Francisco walking down Market Street, passing Neiman Marcus and your phone rings, telling you they've got a special just for you, that's great if you want it," he said. "If you don't want Neiman Marcus to know where you are ... ."

Such instances, McHenry said, suggest it's time to regulate an industry that apparently can't regulate itself.

"I worry that no one has their eyeballs on that; it's an obvious candidate for regulation," McHenry said. "We regulate privacy concerns in a variety of areas, and if not by regulation, then statute."

He doesn't buy the idea that tracking simply increases convenience. McHenry had a bout years ago with lymphoma and in recent times has encountered evidence of prying eyes.

"I beat it, but it was a hell of a struggle," McHenry said. "I spent a good time ... just wiping it from my memory. Now there are at least 50 sites on the Internet that know I had lymphoma. When I'm surfing, I'm confronted with ads reminding me of the experience."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

Whose hands is your info in?