Earlier this year, the Associated Press broke a story that HealthCare.gov was “quietly sending consumers’ personal data to private companies that specialize in advertising and analyzing Internet data for performance and marketing.” The site had Google Analytics and Twitter and Facebook sharing buttons installed.
Chances are, your website is doing the very same thing. Why?
(And if you're writing about education - also a deeply personal, sensitive topic - have you considered the implications of handing over your visitors' data to marketers?)
The top 10 most popular education technology sites, as ranked by Teach 100, place on average of 10 trackers, that is, snippets of code that monitor what you do on a website and, oftentimes, share that with others. This is skewed admittedly by Alan Singer’s blog on the Huffington Post that places 49. The top 10 include the Department of Education’s Homeroom blog, which sends tracking information to YouTube, Google Analytics, Crazy Egg, and Foresee. “Visualized where your visitors click,” boasts Crazy Egg. (This sort of tracking data is not protected by FERPA, for what it’s worth.)
They’re not in the top 10, but Free Technology for Teachers places 15 trackers, according to Ghostery; Privacy Badger finds 21 on the site. Diane Ravitch’s blog places 4 according to Ghostery; Privacy Badger finds 3.
A couple of months ago, I completely revamped hackeducation.com and audreywatters.com, moving the sites from my old content management system to Jekyll. As part of the redesign process, I scrapped the “Right Hand Column” that’s so ubiquitous on blogs. I did so partially for readability. (Many websites are a busy, unreadable mess.) But the redesign also made me think about how that space is often used – not just visually but technically.
The column is often used by bloggers to feature their contact information, along with various widgets and plugins that display recent tweets, popular posts, visitor counts, visitor location, advertising, badges, and the like.
Sometimes those widgets make it obvious that you’re being tracked on a site – ones that announce your IP address and location, for example. (This always strikes me as super creepy.) But often the tracking isn’t so transparent, and it’s rarely clear to visitors when that tracking follows them across the Web.
Moreover, tracking scripts and cookies are just as likely to be in the code in the header or footer of the webpage – there for machines to read, not for humans to see.
Ditching Google Analytics means ditching the tracking of page views. I can’t tell how people find my site. I can’t tell what site they came from or what terms they searched for that led them to me. I can’t see their IP address; I don’t know where they live. I can’t tell what browser they’re using or whether they’re using a mobile device. I can’t tell how long people stay on the site.
And I don’t care.
I don’t sell ads. I don’t sell sponsorships. There is nobody who pays me based on page views. I don’t care about conversions or funnels. I’m not trying to sell something. I’m not trying to game SEO so that my sites perform well for certain keywords. As long as you search for “Audrey Watters” and find me, that’s really all that matters.
There are no rewards – other than a boost to my ego, I suppose – for having a popular article or popular website. I don’t write for traffic. I don’t write for influence. And honestly, I’d only ever open up the Google Analytics dashboard once a year – and curse at it for being such a terribly bloated tool – just so I could comprise my “Top 10 Posts of the Year” story. Why bother?! (It is possible to track your web's traffic and not use Google, by the way.)
And so, why use Google Analytics? Why put code on a page that transmits data to Google? Why use a sharing icon that hands users' data to Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn? Why set cookies? Why track readers?
Me, I go out of my way to avoid being tracked online – I use the Do Not Track option in Firefox, along with AdBlockPlus and Privacy Badger. I opt out of Google tracking my browser history. Why would I expose visitors to my site to the tracking that I purposefully avoid?
"The data is interesting." "The data is valuable." "The data is actionable." "The data is monetizable" - bought and sold. So we're told...
Are these sufficient reasons to track your website visitors?
Interesting to whom? Valuable to whom? Actionable by whom? How? Who’s buying it?
Do you use the data that’s being collected? Or are you just a proxy, collecting and handing it off to others?
How do we expect to help students understand information privacy and security when their own teachers‘, districts’, leaders’ blogs are – quite uncritically, I fear – data honey pots?