Individuals are growing conscious of the privacy risks that come with surfing the Web, but it turns out that businesses often overexpose themselves too. The problem often arises when workers visit websites for job-related reasons.
Say, for example, that a company is working on a new smart phone. Its engineers research other products and check out how competitors are marketing them. What they may not realize is that their visits show up in the log files of the competitors’ websites, and some simple sleuthing can reveal who was visiting and what that visitor might have been up to. In particular, Web surfers reveal themselves through their IP addresses—unique identifiers that are tied to particular computers. IP addresses can be used to infer location. Often, it’s also possible to discern who owns the address, particularly when that entity is a corporation.
“By watching the competitor’s Web activity, you can time their development cycle,” says Lance Cottrell, chief scientist and founder of Anonymizer, a company that helps businesses and individuals conceal private information when searching the Web. “The Internet just kind of feels anonymous, but it’s really exactly the opposite. Every single thing you do on the Internet is tracked.”
Jules Polonetsky, director of a think tank called the Future of Privacy Forum, agrees. “Treat it like you would if you were showing up at their plants,” he says. Polonetsky jokes that if T-Mobile employees working on a new smart phone kept going into Sprint retail stores wearing uniforms and homing in on a particular device, no one would be at all surprised if Sprint made some intelligent guesses about T-Mobile’s plans. Yet this is what companies do virtually when they research competitors carelessly and allow their IP addresses to show up in the competitors’ logs. While “the risk isn’t huge for most folks,” Polonetsky says, businesses with special privacy concerns should be careful.
Cottrell has built a business out of those special situations. Although he can’t reveal the identities of Anonymizer’s clients, he cites stories of working with industries ranging from airlines to pharmaceuticals to security.