Friday, November 20, 2009

Can the government see what Web sites I visit?

Imagine you're shopping at a mall. You browse different stores, make a few purchases and move on. Then, you notice that a man you don't know seems to be following you. You even catch a glimpse of him taking notes on what you're looking at and buying. The entire time you've been shopping, you've been spied on!

Many people fear that a similar thing is happening on the Web. They're worried that someone, usually the government, is recording and analyzing their Web browsing activity. They argue that these acts are an invasion of privacy. Are they right to be worried? Can the government keep track of all the Web sites everyone visits, and would it be able to act on that information?

Laptop Image Gallery

Internet spy
©iStockphoto/Angel Manuel Herrero
Good try, but a ski mask offers little protection from online scrutiny. See more laptop pictures.

It's easy to understand why some people are worried. The United States Patriot Act expands the government's ability to perform searches and install wiretaps. It doesn't seem like a big stretch to add tracking people's Internet activity to the list. These people fear that they'll be spied on whether they've done anything to justify it or not.

Big Brother's Browser
People who worry that the government is tracking their Web activities sometimes use the adjective Orwellian. The word means invasive and totalitarian, and it's named after author George Orwell, who wrote the book "1984." In that novel, a government known as Big Brother controls nearly every aspect of citizens' lives.

In some ways, fear about the government's ability to keep tabs on Web activities has reached the level of a conspiracy theory. In the most extreme version of the theory, the government is tracking not only Web site activity, but also is building a database of potential suspects for crimes ranging from corporate sabotage to terrorism. Other theories don't go that far, but still suggest the government is treating everyone like a suspect -- even if people aren't doing anything illegal or questionable.

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