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Articles - You are being watched...

While the benefits of rampant commercialism of the Internet have benefitted us by a decrease in access costs and increased availability to free software and information, there are some legacies.....

I run a website and I am always interested in the demographics connected with it. Like most webmasters, I have server logs that tell me how many visitors I have had that day, which pages were viewed the most etc, etc. I am always on the lookout for more accurate statistics and I recently came across a great little utility.

....then dropped it like a hot potato....

I won't name the software as I don't want any undesirable attention, but I'd just like to make you aware that it's out there and what it does.

If you come across a web site that states something along the lines of "you can chat with a sales representative, live", there is a good chance that your movement through the site is being tracked, not just by a computer, but also a human operator.

It works like this on the controllers end once you visit a page on the site:

- an audible and visual alarm is sent to the operator

- on their screen it shows you as a series of numbers/letters known as a IP/Host address (and remembers it for later). The IP/Host address is the address of your computer at the time on the internet. This is the type of information that hackers drool over.

- you are then being tracked through the site - the pages you visit and the length of time you spend on each one

- the operator can then request to chat with you, or you can request to chat with the operator. A window will open up in your browser so the conversation can occur

- the operator can also "push" certain pages to be displayed

- if you engage in a chat session with the operator, the transcript can be saved for viewing by the operator the next time you are on that site. A "profile" is built up.

As I am typing this, my browser is sitting on one of these pages. My firewall (security) software is going insane.....

This software is not released by the "Internet Underground", but is freely available, legal, widely advertised and used by some very prominent companies - I have witnessed it on their sites - just prior to hitting the "back" button.... There are versions of it that are free. You do not need to join a secret society to learn about it. The company is very up front regarding the capabilities of the utility.

The first time I ran the software, I was absolutely stunned by the information it was giving me. 2 days later I removed it. It didn't feel "right".

- You don't need to be a computer genius to install this software

- Because the data comes via the software companies servers, I don't know if/how they were utilising the data

- There is no real screening of applicants for this software

- This software could be used on a legitimate site, the data gathered and used for illegitimate purposes

- The page you came from prior to that site could quite possibly be indicated (known as a referring page)

I guess there are two ways to view this software:

a) A major development in customer service in an online environment.

b) Intrusive and uninvited. I am yet to see an advice on a web site running this kind of tracking that your movements are being monitored in an effort to "improve customer service". The tracking could be defended using the analogy of a salesperson in a store; or a shopkeeper. But at least you can see them and you know they are there - and they usually don't keep notes regarding your conversation with them!

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This software has won many major industry awards. I have nothing against commercial utilisation of the web, I am a part of it, but utilities such as this do raise some questions regarding privacy ethics.

In my country, when you call a major company via the telephone, there is usually a recorded message stating that your call may be monitored for "coaching purposes" or "quality control". You are given the option of requesting that the call not be monitored.

I would like to see the same option on the 'net

What are your thoughts?

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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