A Web Analytics Privacy Warning

It must be that time of year. Last Wednesday “The Wall Street Journal” ran another article (“Groups Urge Web Tracking Inquiry”) about privacy concerns related to Web analytics and visitor behavior data collection on Web sites.

The article focused on a complaint filed with the FTC by the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. I read the CDD’s press release and overview, and scanned the 50-page filling.

Said CDD executive director Jeff Chester in the release, “The FTC should long ago have sounded a very public alarm… concerning the data collection practices stemming from such fields as Web analytics, online advertising networks, behavioral targeting and rich ‘virtual reality'[virtual reality media], all of which threaten the privacy of the U.S. public.” Microsoft was definitely a primary target of the complaint, specifically the their adCenter offering.

Though I’m not one to defend the large ad networks, the light in which analytics is painted is a shame. The average joe reading the “WSJ” has no reason to think tracking visitor behaviors has any value to outside parties or poses a security or privacy risk.

What comes next in the release really threw me off. Remember, the primary concern is with U.S. consumers’ privacy:

Current privacy disclosure policies, CDD and US PIRG contend, are totally inadequate, failing to effectively inform users what data are being collected and how that information is subsequently used. While many companies claim they collect only “non-personally identifiable” information, they fail to acknowledge the tremendous amounts of data compiled and associated with each unique visitor who visits their website. Thus even if these companies don’t know the names and addresses of users, they literally know every move those users make online, through sophisticated online tracking and analysis technologies.

I re-read this a number of times, trying to figure out what impact it has on an individual’s privacy if her behaviors are collected on a Web site but can’t be tied back to her in any way. How has privacy been breached?

Now, there are ways Web analytics information could be abused, and private information can certainly be used for evil means. But I’d hardly consider this a primary issue facing the government or the FTC.

Over the past few years, companies and consumers alike have taken privacy policies very seriously. There are very few companies that would risk alienating their customers by blatantly abusing their privacy policies in respect to personally identifiable information. Those companies that are doing this on a regular basis most likely have many other issues as well.

The big question is how could restrictive legislation regarding Web analytics tools and collection practices change the way companies track visitor behaviors and understand what people are doing on their sites? Will consumers really be any more “unidentifiable”? Will site owners not be able to identify bottlenecks in their sites that frustrate customers and prospects?

Only time will tell if this will go any where in regard to Web analytics, but I’m betting very little will change over the coming years.

Take a look at the filing and let me know how big a deal you think this is for consumers and what effect this may have on understanding site visitor behaviors from a Web analytics perspective.

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