Thursday, May 15, 2008

Does Firefox Tracking You Make You Fear ?

Mozilla, the guys behind the popular open-source web browser Firefox are in the works to create a "Stealth Data" project. The project known as Test Pilot,FF which I  initially thought was a pre-April Fool's Joke is the project which will take user-data from the browser and monitor user's browsing behavior. This will be anonymously aggregated and displayed to everyone.

The main idea behind project Test Pilot is that it will enable a web to share data in open and free way. We can have lots of data mashups and link user surfing habits. John Lilly essentially talked about this project with TechCrunch and highlights some of its usefulness...

Overview of Test Pilot
We can provide a much more satisfying experience all around by putting in place some basic infrastructure. Here’s the idea:

  • We develop and promote a formal Test Pilot program with a Firefox add-on at its core.
  • The first time the Test Pilot add-on is run, it asks a few simple non-personally-identifiable questions in order to put the user into a demographic bucket, e.g. technical level, locale, etc., and to let them opt in to additional anonymous instrumentation.
  • Test Pilot will then notify its users when a new experiment is available for testing. If the user opts in, it will download the required software (if any) and load any information required to get started with the new experiment, e.g. overview, use cases, etc.
  • After either a specified amount of time or upon completion of a specific action, Test Pilot will prompt the user for feedback. The feedback form will only ask a few questions selected from a much larger set. A link will be provided to provided more comprehensive unstructured feedback or bug reports.
  • The set of questions posed for feedback will be randomly distributed within each demographic bucket to ensure statistical significance of the results.
  • Anonymized aggregate results and analysis will then be posted automatically to the Test Pilot site.
  • All participants will receive a “flight badge” displayed in their Test Pilot profile and available to embed on blogs, social networks, etc.

The idea is that by reducing the amount of required feedback to only a few clicks we can increase overall rates of participation.

So what are the odds of this becoming a privacy threat?? This is supposed to be an opt-in thing unlike what Facebook thought doing with Beacon. It will be anonymous aggregation of data and will probably be displayed for the world to see. Hopefully, we don't have to pay anything to see that data or else we already have ComScore!!

But what if Microsoft was doing the same thing?? There would be a huge noise on privacy!! May be Firefox is open-source and hence the favorism, but then how easy would it be for someone to play with the stats?? Would it truly be able to show how the web data is being accessed?? Is this how we will move to Web 3.0?? Is it enough to provide data from the browsers??... Quite a lot of questions to answer before we can start clapping and move to the semantic web!!


Ben Wolfe said...

The fiasco with AOL taught us that just posting users' searches/sites was enough to figure out who some people were. This ended up being a huge breach of privacy.

Personally, I think my profile would be identifiable because of the relatively small sites and frequency with which I visit them.

Anonymous said...

I think it could still be a little risky to allow someone else take my surfing behavior. Mozilla could easily marketing it someone else. But its good that we can opt-out.

theBrantMan said...

Remember that FF only represents a very small (yet growing) set of traffic on the internet. This information would be almost useless as it would not include %90 of the internet users