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Risk

1/3/2008
09:24 AM
Dave Methvin
Dave Methvin
Commentary
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Is ComScore Trafficking In Spyware?

The Internet economy runs on information, and a lot of that information relates to Web traffic. Among other things, it greatly influences decisions on where to spend advertising money. For years, companies like ComScore have been offering detailed statistics about where people are going and what they are buying on the Internet. Have you ever wondered what people are participating in this grand behavioral monitoring effort? Perhaps you or the people in your company are providing that information

The Internet economy runs on information, and a lot of that information relates to Web traffic. Among other things, it greatly influences decisions on where to spend advertising money. For years, companies like ComScore have been offering detailed statistics about where people are going and what they are buying on the Internet. Have you ever wondered what people are participating in this grand behavioral monitoring effort? Perhaps you or the people in your company are providing that information to ComScore for free, and you don't even know it.There's nothing wrong with people consenting to be monitored for market research. Nielsen and Arbitron have been doing it for years with television and radio ratings. In those cases, it's impossible for people to not know they are participating. They're usually contacted by telephone or mail, they're screened for their responses to a demographic survey, they have to fill out a log or use an electronic monitor, and sometimes they're even paid to participate. That's a complex process that doesn't happen by accident.

Of course, that type of research generates a lot of "touch costs" that make a large number of survey participants very costly. By automating the process through the Internet, many of those costs can be eliminated. That way, companies like ComScore can have a large group of Internet users that they can sample in different ways, depending on the survey being performed. The result should be better market research.

Unfortunately, it's also very easy for this automated process to lack clear disclosure to -- and the explicit consent of -- the people being monitored. Within the past month, Computer Associates' Benjamin Googins and Harvard professor Ben Edelman have both pointed out disclosure and consent problems in ComScore's software.

The most disturbing thing about this situation is that it's not new. ComScore has been in the middle of this controversy for at least five years, and very little seems to change except the name of the software. The company claims that it does notify its participants, yet researchers like Googins and Edelman clearly document how a user could install this software without the foggiest idea of what it's doing. IT managers at several organizations have blocked ComScore software because of its intrusive habits that include rerouting secure HTTP traffic containing credit card information.

As Larry Dignan notes, there are serious questions about the quality of ComScore's traffic measurement strategy, perhaps because of the shortcuts the company has taken to recruit participants. Everyone that runs or advertises on an Internet site wants better information, but it doesn't seem ethical to gather that information off a user's system without clear disclosure.

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