Microsoft Corp. last week launched a Web-based tool designed to help Internet users determine the level of online privacy they want.
The tool takes the form of an interactive 10-question quiz that puts the user into one of six categories based on his or her answers. The categories range from "Defender: one who is extra-cautious about protecting information and prefers anonymity online as much as possible" to "Supporter: one who fully supports sharing information with Web sites because of the benefits received."
After the quiz, users are offered several privacy-protection tips based on the category they were placed in. Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., said the quiz is meant to make consumers more aware of what information Web sites gather and how it can be used.
However, critics of the company said the tool is just another example of an effort by some companies to shift attention away from themselves.
"This is part of a larger movement to redefine what privacy means," said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in Washington. "Theyre trying to redefine privacy as notice and ignore access and use limitations. These are often just self-justifying systems that allow a company to continue its business practices and say its protecting privacy."
EPIC and others have been sharply critical of Microsoft in recent months over the companys controversial Passport single-sign-on technology for Web services. The software stores a users personal data—including credit card numbers, address and phone numbers—and can retrieve the information and automatically fill in forms on Passport partner sites.
Privacy groups worry that users personal information will be made available to Passport partners for marketing purposes.
Microsoft denies such charges, saying that all customer information is held in Microsofts own databases and only provided to partner sites during a customer transaction.
Still, critics said, Microsoft has some distance to travel to remedy its own privacy issues.
"Passport enables unnecessary data collection, which will lead to profiling," EPICs Hoofnagle said.
"The most important protection of privacy is minimization [of the amount of data collected]. Its an idea that has been ignored by e-commerce companies," Hoofnagle said.
But Microsoft is not alone in its plans for a single-sign-on service.
Both AOL Time Warner Inc.s America Online unit and Sun Microsystems Inc. are working on similar projects. Suns Liberty Alliance plan involves several other vendors.
However, neither Sun, of Palo Alto, Calif., nor AOL, of Dulles, Va., has released the details of how its system will gather and handle users personal data.
The privacy assessment tool is on Microsofts Web site at www.microsoft.com/safeinternet.