Microsoft's Privacy Features Can't Outwit ISP-Based Tracking

Privacy advocates and lawmakers have increasingly turned their attention to behavioral targeting companies that track users across the Web and serve ads based on their activity. Now, Microsoft is throwing itself into the debate with a new product that could foil some forms of behavioral targeting.

The company has just said its new version of the Internet Explorer browser will help people keep their Web-surfing activity confidential. The browser will come with two new privacy-friendly features: InPrivate Browsing and InPrivate Blocking. When turned on, InPrivate Browsing will automatically clear users' Web history while InPrivate Blocking will prevent companies from setting tracking cookies or otherwise tracking users across a variety of sites.

Privacy advocates are cheering the programs for giving consumers more control over who can view their Web behavior. While InPrivate Browsing seems somewhat overhyped -- users could previously delete their cache files or cookies manually -- InPrivate Blocking appears to make it much easier for users to automatically block tracking.

Still, before anyone gets lulled into a false sense of privacy, keep in mind that InPrivate Blocking won't necessarily prevent the newest and most controversial type of program to hit the Web -- ISP-based tracking.

That's because Microsoft's program only affects what's stored on users' own computers. ISPs still know all Web sites visited and can still sell that information to companies like NebuAd and Phorm.

NebuAd also stores information about users on cookies, so InPrivate Blocking might theoretically have an impact on the platform, but it's not clear that it would render it useless. Phorm relies on a different type of platform -- one that doesn't appear likely to be affected by Microsoft's new privacy features.

Which means that Microsoft's new program won't moot the policy debate underway in Washington. If anything, the program highlights just how difficult it is for users to control ISP-based targeting.

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