Tracking

I’ve been reading the excellent Design For Safety by Eva PenzeyMoog. There was a line that really stood out to me:

The idea that it’s alright to do whatever unethical thing is currently the industry norm is widespread in tech, and dangerous.

It stood out to me because I had been thinking about certain practices that are widespread, accepted, and yet strike me as deeply problematic. These practices involve tracking users.

The first problem is that even the terminology I’m using would be rejected. When you track users on your website, it’s called analytics. Or maybe it’s stats. If you track users on a large enough scale, I guess you get to just call it data.

Those words—“analytics”, “stats”, and “data”—are often used when the more accurate word would be “tracking.”

Or to put it another way; analytics, stats, data, numbers …these are all outputs. But what produced these outputs? Tracking.

Here’s a concrete example: email newsletters.

Do you have numbers on how many people opened a particular newsletter? Do you have numbers on how many people clicked a particular link?

You can call it data, or stats, or analytics, but make no mistake, that’s tracking.

Follow-on question: do you honestly think that everyone who opens a newsletter or clicks on a link in a newsletter has given their informed constent to be tracked by you?

You may well answer that this is a widespread—nay, universal—practice. Well yes, but a) that’s not what I asked, and b) see the above quote from Design For Safety.

You could quite correctly point out that this tracking is out of your hands. Your newsletter provider—probably Mailchimp—does this by default. So if the tracking is happening anyway, why not take a look at those numbers?

But that’s like saying it’s okay to eat battery-farmed chicken as long as you’re not breeding the chickens yourself.

When I try to argue against this kind of tracking from an ethical standpoint, I get a frosty reception. I might have better luck battling numbers with numbers. Increasing numbers of users are taking steps to prevent tracking. I had a plug-in installed in my mail client—Apple Mail—to prevent tracking. Now I don’t even need the plug-in. Apple have built it into the app. That should tell you something. It reminds me of when browsers had to introduce pop-up blocking.

If the outputs generated by tracking turn out to be inaccurate, then shouldn’t they lose their status?

But that line of reasoning shouldn’t even by necessary. We shouldn’t stop tracking users because it’s inaccurate. We should stop stop tracking users because it’s wrong.

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

danq.me

A few weeks ago, my credit card provider wrote to me to tell me that they were switching me back from paperless to postal billing because I’d “not been receiving their emails”.

This came as a surprise to me because I have been receiving their emails. Why would they think that I hadn’t?

This is a re-enactment but I promise the facial expression is pretty much right.

Turns out they have a tracking pixel in their email to track that it’s been opened, as well as potentially additional data such as when it was opened (or re-opened), what email client or clients the recipient uses, what IP address or addresses they read their mail from, and so on.

Naturally, because I don’t like creepy companies tracking what I do on my own computers and try to minimise how much they can do so, I read most of my mail with remote content disabled:

“To protect your privacy from fucking creepy banks misusing features of HTML emails, Thunderbird has blocked remote content in this message.” only tells half the story.

Jeremy just had something to say on this topic, too, based on his recent reading of Design for Safety by Eva PenzeyMoog:

Do you have numbers on how many people opened a particular newsletter? Do you have numbers on how many people clicked a particular link?

You can call it data, or stats, or analytics, but make no mistake, that’s tracking.

Follow-on question: do you honestly think that everyone who opens a newsletter or clicks on a link in a newsletter has given their informed constent to be tracked by you?

Needless to say, I had words with my credit card provider. Paperless billing is useful to almost everybody but it’s incredibly useful for blind and partially-sighted users (who are also the ones least-likely to have images loading in the first place, for obvious reasons) because your computer can read your communication to you which is much more-convenient than a letter. Imagine how annoyed you’d be if your bank wrote you a letter (which you couldn’t read but had to get somebody else to read to you) to tell you that because you don’t look at the images in their emails they’re not going to send them to you any more?

Even if you can somehow justify using tracking technologies (which don’t work reliably) to make general, statistical decisions (“fewer people open our emails when the subject contains the word ‘overdraft’!”), you can’t make individual decisions based on them. That’s just wrong.

# Tuesday, November 16th, 2021 at 7:43pm

Pete Huey

Years ago, working for a charity, part of my job was deep analytics to help improve engagement. Thankfully something we have avoided in current workplace. @adactio perfectly channels Dr Ian Malcolm here: just because we could, doesn’t mean we should. adactio.com/journal/18625

# Posted by Pete Huey on Thursday, November 18th, 2021 at 11:42am

James

I am writing a blog post every day from December 1st to December 24th, 2021, about a blogger whose writing or site I follow. My aim for this series is to help you discover new blogs and to help get the word out about content creators whose blogs I appreciate. You can read more about this series in the inaugural post where I chat more about this series. Let’s begin!

Adactio (adactio.com)

Adactio is a blog run by Jeremy Keith, the founder of Clearleft. On the Adactio blog, you will find four different types of content: a journal with shorter articles, a list of links to resources Jeremy has liked, articles Jeremy has written, and shorter form notes. All of these categories have their own feed so you can pick and choose which one(s) you enjoy the most and subscribe. I have subscribed to three out of the four categories in my RSS feed.

Jeremy blogs mostly about the web, covering topics such as web tracking, using the right tools for the job, and his work writing for the web.dev blog. I have enjoyed posts on all of these topics. Jeremy’s extensive experience shines through in every article, presenting informed and well-articulated arguments for many areas that I find interesting.

I have found some terrific web resources on adactio.com over the last week. Posting links on quite a regular cadence, you’ll almost certainly find a link to a web resource or article that you will find interesting, as long as you are interested in the web. If you are in the mood for a long-form piece of content, look no further than Jeremy’s articles section. You’ll find plenty of written talks, presentations, and long-form content to perus.e

Adactio.com also comes with a terrific set of themes. I in awe of the themes available, which cover a wide range of historical web aesthetics and made me feel confident in offering a “retro” version of my site.

If you’re looking for a place to start on Adactio.com, I would recommend:

Today I also learned that Jeremy has been blogging for 20 years, making his blog one of the longest-running that I have seen to date. Amazing!

Wrapping Up

I love writing this series. For the last three days, one of the first things on my mind after waking up is “what blog am I going to feature today?” I have seen so many interesting websites in the last few years. If you ever feel like the web is all the same, I’d recommend checking out the IndieWeb or clicking through the websites I feature in this series. You’ll realise there is still a great deal of creative content on the web written by independent bloggers: you just have to know where to start looking. And this series will give you a good place to begin if you haven’t already!

I shall see you in tomorrow’s edition of this series. Until then, happy reading and exploring!

# Posted by James on Friday, December 3rd, 2021 at 12:00am

Previously on this day

5 years ago I wrote Resilience retires

Top. Men.

6 years ago I wrote Full Meaning Ampersand

Brighton has been positively bursting with excellent events lately.

7 years ago I wrote Home

Reports of the death of the personal site has been greatly exaggerated.

15 years ago I wrote Or Land O

Live from Florida.

18 years ago I wrote Javascript Strikes Back

While I’m working over at Message, most of work consists of fairly hardcore PHP and MySQL.