NEW YORK -- Information about the reading, shopping and entertainment habits of users of the World Wide Web will soon be used to target advertising to them -- often without their knowledge, The New York Times reported Sunday.
Many individual Internet services have begun collecting information about who uses their sites and how they use them in order to create a central data base, the newspaper said.
Among the Web sites participating in the effort by CMG Information Services will be the Lycos-Tripod site -- visited by 14.8 million people in July -- and the Geocities online community of more than 2 million Web sites, which attracted 14.2 million visitors last month.
The system, called Engage, does not record the names, e-mail addresses or credit card numbers of the people it gathers information from. Instead, it keeps track of users by placing a special identification number on the hard drive of computer users.
The ads would then be fed to the Internet users as they browse sites. For example, a user who looks up tourist information about England on a travel site in the network could be shown ads for hotels in London.
If users choose not to take part, they can visit the Engage Web site and select an option that will remove the identification number, the newspaper said.
While proponents of the system say Engage will allow companies to send precisely directed advertisements to users, advocates of privacy rights worry about the ability of online companies to gather and store such information.
"Engage has done many good things to protect privacy, but my worry is they are firing the starting gun in the race for the bottom," said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbuster Corporation, a privacy consulting firm.
"The worst actors will be left to use the most sophisticated surveillance techniques as they please."