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What are Web beacons?

Celeste StewartWeb sites often employ a number of techniques to gather information about their visitors. In some cases, this information is used to customize your browsing experience; in others, it's used so that the Web site's developers can analyze the different types of visitors to their sites. In other cases, information is used for unscrupulous purposes. By collecting IP addresses, a Web site developer can see where visitors are coming from geographically (yes, your IP address reveals a general geographic location) as well as what operating systems, browsers, and other computer tools are being used. Other information gathered can include where you came from and where you went after visiting the Web site.

You've probably heard of cookies, right? Web beacons are often used alongside cookies to monitor the Web site's usage. However, Web beacons are also quite different from cookies. For example, you can set your computer's browser to flat out refuse cookies if you so desire but you are nearly defenseless against Web beacons. Web beacons are placed on both Web sites and e-mail messages as tiny, nearly imperceptible images. Since they are actually graphical elements of the Web page or e-mail message itself, they aren't detected by standard means such as anti-spyware applications. After all, they are simply tiny images.


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Before we get into what Web beacons do, let's look at how they appear on a Web site or within an e-mail message. Can you spot a 1 pixel image of a white dot on this page? Not likely - even if you were actually looking. Web beacons often take the form of just such an image and become virtually invisible.

Like most images on Web pages, the actual image file is hosted on a server. When you land on a page with an image, your computer must connect to the server and retrieve the image file. This happens seamlessly whenever you visit Web sites with images. However, when your computer connects to the server to download the image, it then communicates information to the server, which is readily retrievable by the Web master or spammer. This communication confirms activity. It lets the server know that a web site has been visited or an e-mail opened.

When Web beacons are used on Web pages, third parties can monitor and track the Web site's activities. If you turn off cookies in your browser, you can prevent the tracking of your personal activity though the Web site will still be able to detect an anonymous visit.

When Web beacons are used in e-mail messages, they effectively tell the spammer that an e-mail message has been opened - which then confirms that the spammer has a good e-mail address that is actively being used by a real person. Why would spammers want this confirmation? By confirming that live eyeballs are checking the messages for a particular e-mail address, spammers know they have a hot target. Web beacons in e-mail messages are undetectable to you, but once the e-mail is opened, the server hosting the image is accessed, and your e-mail address has been confirmed as being a hot one.

Fortunately, many e-mail applications are on to the Web beacon scheme, which is why your e-mail program likely no longer displays included images. If you receive an HTML e-mail and see only red Xs where you would've expected images, then your e-mail program has most likely blocked images specifically to prevent the connection to the third party server. If you trust the sender, then you can unblock the images and view them in their full glory. If you have no idea who is sending you unsolicited e-mail, don't unblock the images. Otherwise, you'll confirm that you're a live target.

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