Web Bugs

Have you ever heard the term Web Bug? How about Web Beacon or Clear GIF? Well, don’t feel left out if you haven’t, it’s not everyday terminology. The terms I mentioned are different names for the same thing. For the sake of remaining simple I’ll stick with one name Web Bug. So what are Web Bugs and what to they do? They are small (1 by 1 pixel), usually transparent gifs hidden on websites or e-mails within other images like banner adds. Web bugs come from a different site than the one you are viewing ( third-party ) but are most often affiliated with the site being viewed.

They are a lot like cookies in that they allow sites to recognize you and track where you’ve been. Web Bugs have a couple of major differences however. Web bugs share your information with any site that you may visit with the same type of web bug imbedded on it. The personal information bugs are sharing can be harmless information or very personal information—it depends on what information you have put on one of these sites. If you have given one of these sites information like your email address, then every other site you visit with the same bug will have your email address and can now send you spam. By sharing this personal information between sites these entities using bugs can get your email address and send out more spam and web bugs right to your front door. If you visit a site that recognizes you from a Web Bug then that server can not only track you but also send images and blocks of text to you. Web Bugs are also harder to detect than cookies because they are hidden, extremely small, and invisible.

These Web Bugs can also be placed in e-mails—a favorite trick of spammers is to hide a Web Bug in a random email. Opening or even previewing this e-mail can initiate the Web Bug process, which tells spammers that this is a valid e-mail address when someone views it. This validates your address, essentially making you part of their list of e-mails to spam. Most of the more recognized e-mail clients are affected by this such as Outlook Express, Gecko for Linux, Netscape, AOL, and more.

So, how do you stop or prevent these web Bugs from tracking you? As far as e-mail, make sure you don’t open or even preview e-mails from unknown sources. Another thing you can do to prevent the Web bugs from biting is to block images in your e-mail all together, this will stop the GIFs from getting through your defenses. Win XP Service Pack 2 turns this setting ON by default in Outlook Express, and other e-mail clients have similar options (i.e. MSN/Hotmail and AOL).

You can also configure tougher cookie settings in your browser, but keep in mind all of these settings will affect the way you surf the web and view your e-mail. You can get advertising blocking software, but these programs have a hard time distinguishing between images that show information and images that are crawlin’ with Bugs. Other than that, tune in tomorrow when I’ll show you a freeware title that will detect Web Bugs as they’re tagging your PC. You can also go through the HTML code and look for the img tag that relates to a cookie (sounds like fun).

So are these bugs really something to get all worked up about? Well if you really don’t like the thought of constantly being tracked and evaluated then “Yes”. If you don’t like spam or pop-ups then this could be something you might want to at least regulate. You can figure out exactly what a web bug is doing by viewing the privacy policy which should be located on the website of the owner of the bug. If you don’t find the privacy policy, you can always send the company e-mail and ask for what purposes do they have web bugs on their site.

Stay safe out there,

~ Chad

P.S. Here’s how to set your browser to prompt you before a cookie or web bug gets on your system…