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4 April, 2007

We know where you've been

I won't give details, as it's in closed beta, but a new type of web stats tracker is being promoted to the webmasters of UK universities.

It collects the usual user stats, but goes a step further. Randomly-selected sessions are recorded in full, even to the extent of logging the movement of a visitor's cursor over the page, which is subsequently presented to the site owner as a Flash movie. It's advertised as the 'next best thing to organised user testing', though since the user won't know he/she is being 'watched', it could be a truer record of actual usage.

Some of my peers (particularly in Scotland, for some reason) have reacted unfavourably, considering it an excessive invasion of privacy. As you may have noticed, I'm certainly a privacy advocate, but I don't think I have a problem with this. Considering we already monitor platform, browser, screen resolution, entry/exit pages, residence time, even geographic location, amongst several other data, the movement of a visitor's mouse pointer is one of the least personally-identifiable parameters collected. Ultimately, whilst there may be an argument against collecting data at all, I doubt whether these additional data are a different, greater problem. They just feel more invasive, somehow.

Actually, now I think about it, this technology may offer an extra level of detail. We already know a visitor's entry page and the page from which he/she arrived, and the same combination when a visitor leaves, but I suppose if we were to track cursor movement and clicks, we'd have a record of movement within the site too.

As I've been writing, I've been discussing the issue with J, the (print) Publications Assistant in my office, who was initially startled to discover what we're already logging. She identified two potential conflicts: would a staff member want it to be known he/she had visited specific pages within the Counselling Service's section of the site, or had been searching the Employment Vacancies listings?

Any thoughts?

Comments

As with everything, I think it;s how the information is manged that's crucial. In general though, if you're looking for counselling or a new job, do it in your own time. You are, after all, being paid for your work, not your browsing.

Posted by looby at April 10, 2007 06:45 PM

Information management: yes, though I'm not sure there are adequate safeguards. I wouldn't abuse access to data, because I just don't have enough interest in (most) people and I feel strongly about individual privacy, but the possibility is there.

Private browsing at work: no. Employees aren't automata, and I couldn't imagine working for a Victorian throwback with a 'you're only here to work' attitude.
Many, maybe most, employers tacitly permit private use of a corporate web connection, so long as it isn't excessive and is in a designated break i.e. in the employee's own time within the working day. Some employers, as in this case, expressly give permission.
There is absolutely no suggestion that these hypothetical people would be seeking counselling or career opportunities illicitly.

Posted by NRT at April 10, 2007 11:26 PM
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