A little bird that guards your online privacy

If you want to get detailed information about how Web sites use your personal data, then you need to listen to a little bird – the Privacy Bird.

A free plug-in from AT&T Corp. for Internet Explorer 5 and later versions, Privacy Bird allows you to specify your privacy preferences regarding how a Web site stores and collects data about you. If a site’s policies meet your requirements, a small green bird icon in the browser’s title bar emits a happy tweet after you have loaded the page.

But if the site does more with your information than you’ve said you’ll accept, the bird icon turns red and chirps a shrill warning when you first load the page. The bird doesn’t block the site; it only alerts you that you may not like what the site does with your information.

With a couple of clicks, you can see what a site plans to do with your data. I noticed that the bird was alarmed when I visited Yahoo.com. I clicked on the bird’s summary of Yahoo Inc.’s privacy policy and found that, among other things, Yahoo “may contact you to interest you in other services or products and does not allow you to remove yourself from marketing/mailing list.”

The idea for the bird hatched at AT&T Research, which got involved when programmers at AT&T and many other companies began crafting the Platform for Privacy Preferences, or P3P.

P3P gives Web sites a standardized, simple way to disclose how they collect, use and distribute personal information about their visitors.

Internet Explorer 6 uses P3P to give users fine control over which sites may set cookies. But the browser can’t give you any information about how sites will use data entered into registration fields, shopping forms, or message boards.

That’s where Privacy Bird earns its wings. According to Lorrie Cranor, the AT&T researcher who headed the Privacy Bird project, about a third of the top 100 most-visited sites on the Web have in place the P3P policies the plug-in needs to operate.

Unfortunately, that leaves another two-thirds of the largest sites at which the Privacy Bird flashes yellow – a signal indicating only that the site has no posted P3P-compatible privacy policy.

The Privacy Bird is already a useful tool. As more sites create P3P policies, it will become indispensable for cautious surfers.