For Release:
December 17, 1999
Contact: Andrew Shen, EPIC 202-544-9240
Dori Kornfeld, EPIC, 202-544-4859


EPIC Releases Online Privacy Report
Warns Holiday Shoppers that Privacy is at Risk

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As millions of Americans prepare to do their last-minute holiday shopping on the Internet this weekend, a new report warns that their privacy may be at risk. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington-based privacy research group, finds that few of the 100 most popular shopping websites provide adequate privacy protections for consumers.

The report "Surfer Beware III: Privacy Policies without Privacy Protection" examined compliance with "Fair Information Practices," a set of principles that provide basic privacy protection. EPIC also looked at whether commercial sites utilized profile-based advertising, and employed "cookies" in their website operations. Both of these controversial techniques have been the subject of recent investigations.

EPIC found that 18 of the top shopping sites did not display a privacy policy, 35 of the sites have profile-based advertisers operating on their pages, and 87 of the e-commerce operations use cookies. According to the EPIC survey, not one of the companies in the survey adequately addressed all the elements of Fair Information Practices. EPIC also found that the privacy policies available at many web sites are typically confusing, incomplete, and inconsistent.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, said "On balance, we think that consumers are more at risk today than they were in 1997, when we first examined privacy practices on the web. The profiling is more extensive and the marketing techniques are more intrusive. Anonymity, which remains crucial to privacy on the Internet, is being squeezed out by the rise of electronic commerce." Mr. Rotenberg added that "legally enforceable standards of privacy are necessary to ensure compliance with Fair Information practices, and new techniques for anonymity are necessary to protect online privacy."

Without such standards for privacy, many consumers are left disarmed when conducting online shopping. Jason Catlett, the President of Junkbusters said, "The stated policies of most big shopping sites run the gamut from bad to atrocious. People should have the right to buy without being tracked and without having their personal information sold."

In addition to the general lack of privacy protection on the Internet, new technologies such as online profiling threaten privacy. "This study reveals that someone other than Santa is reading our Christmas list. These profiling companies know when we are buying and when we are online," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education.

Surfer Beware III is the third survey undertaken by EPIC on line privacy. The first survey "Surfer Beware: Personal Privacy and the Internet" was the first formal review of online privacy policies and provided the basis for the Federal Trade Commission's subsequent review of online privacy practices published in 1998

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (www.epic.org) is a public interest research organization based in Washington, DC. Junkbusters Corp. (www.junkbusters.com) is a privacy advocacy and consulting firm based in Green Brook, NJ. The Center for Media Education (www.cme.org) is a national nonprofit organization that works to promote the democratic potential of electronic media, especially on behalf of children and families.

Surfer Beware III: Privacy Policies without Privacy Protection (1999)

Surfer Beware II: Notice is Not Enough (1998)

Surfer Beware: Personal Privacy and the Internet (1997)