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Microsoft was caught off-guard yesterday by a warning that Word documents could be tracked over the Internet without their readers' knowledge.

A press release from a security consultant drew attention to the potential problem, by which embedded links to content on servers could be used to track the usage of documents as they're passed around multiple users on the Net. Richard M Smith pointed out that the embedded content could well be invisible to the user, who could find themselves being tracked without their knowledge. Since the discovery of links to remote images on Doubleclick affiliates that only measure a single-pixel, and are thus invisible to the user, he's got a point.the

Smith is the CTO of the Privacy Foundation, which we'd never heard of before - Privacy International is the long standing clearing house and advocacy body for privacy information on both sides of the Atlantic, and in Asia too. The Privacy Foundation appears to be just Smith, journalist Stephen Keating... and a webmaster.
But as we should have pointed out, it's the same Richard M Smith who co-founded Phar Lap and has a distinguished record of finding security glitches.

Publicity stunt or not, the foundation has drawn attention to a long standing feature of applications that use embedded content. Microsoft product manager was correct Lisa Gurry was quite correct in pointing out that this is neither new nor limited to Microsoft applications.

However the remedy she suggested was more telling than Smith's advisory. Users should disable the cookie feature on their browsers, she told CNet. Quite coincidentally, CNet itself holds the mother-of-all-patents for this kind of user tracking: a fact that our fearless friends at CNet and ZDNet modestly declined to mention in their coverage.

From Gurry's comments it sounds as if Microsoft wants the problem to fade quietly. That's unlikely, given the scope for abuse. More pertinently, there doesn't appear to be a way of turning off the attempted retrieval of remote content from within the application. You can only turn off the cookies themselves (and clobber your browser).

It took billions of dollars of lost customer time before Microsoft attempted to apply some finer granularity to its email security model, and we'll be interested to see how it reacts to this, particularly given its recent posturing as the consumer champion against the evil cookie. ®

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