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A Hidden Website ‘Camera’

December 2, 2010

Your visit has been noted.
I recently found out that Google™ offers a free service to website builders. 
It’s called “Google Analytics™,” and it can track the number of visitors that come to a website, and can even tell us a little bit about them. 

Intrigued, I installed the relevant code on my site in late October, and as a result have found out that – from the day I set it up until today – 996 different people have clicked somewhere on this website.  Some days there are fifty such visitors; some days only ten. 1

I find this quite astonishing.  Far more people visit this site than I had ever expected.

Most people want to look at the Little Bible Handbook — which makes me feel that this project has been quite worthwhile — but 159 people also clicked on my personal home page, and from there many of them went on to look at these Chronicles, or at the photo album, or at other little corners of this website.  57 stayed more than ten minutes reading stuff on the site, and 15 spent upwards of thirty minutes in a visit!

Google gives me quite a lot of information about you, by the way — maybe not your dental records or your hair colour, but it tells me where you live, and what language you use on your computer, what you typed into a search engine to find my site, and a lot of technical stuff about your computer and your internet connection.  I now know that my site’s visitors come from all the major English-language countries — England, Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.  There are visitors too from non-English speaking lands (4 from China!), some of whom use translation software to read it.  I know, too, that most of the people who hit the Bible Handbook pages are from the U.S.A.; while those who click on my personal pages are mostly from Canada (maybe they are people I’ve met?).

There is much more.  One of the most interesting bits is the fact that 76 of my visitors tried to access the site from a mobile device (iPhone, BlackBerry, iPad – that sort of thing).  However, when I looked at it on my own iPhone, I found it pretty hard to read, so one day I may have to figure out how to format the site to look good on a tiny screen.

Is there anything sinister in all this?

Some people may feel a certain disquiet to know that their location and their computer and their clicks are being recorded while they linger over an elderly cleric’s personal web space.  Certainly if this happens on a harmless site like mine, how much more intensive will it be when you click on the world’s big commercial and government sites?

From my perspective, of course, the information provided by Google Analytics is very helpful: (a) because when you do a lot of writing as I do, it’s nice to know that somebody actually reads what you create; (b) also, it’s worth knowing which pages never interest anyone – ever – because maybe such pages should be fixed or deleted; and (c) it is particularly helpful to learn that some of the methods that I have used to format this site don’t work on certain browsers.  For example, I found that 18% of my visitors do not have ‘Java Support’ (sorry about the techno-speak).  This means that these visitors could not, for one, see the little quotations that randomly appear on my home page, but worse, they could not access the main text of Currents, because of the way that I had set it up!

For parents, this tracking technology can be most desirable.  Software that closely resembles the codes that note your visit to this page helps parents to find out where their children are surfing.  Proper use of such programming can protect the children – even stop them altogether – from accessing sites that are harmful to them.

On the other hand, this technology does represent a certain hazard: your computer, when it is connected to the Internet, is a public device.  People can see it and what it is doing.  If you are paranoid about being watched, then don’t access the Internet at all, because whenever you do, somebody somewhere can see you, or at least see your clicks.

I liken it to going outdoors.  When I am in my home, I have a degree of privacy.  But when I step outside, I should make sure that I haven’t forgotten my pants, that my wallet is safe from pickpockets, and that I’m not going somewhere dangerous.  These are normal precautions that everyone has been taking (and teaching their kids to take) since the beginning of time.  We simply need to apply comparable strategies when we go onto the Internet:
  • Passwords and credit card information protected? 2   √
  • Sensitive messages or pictures protected? 2   √
  • Are the places I go as concerned as I am about privacy and safety? 3   √
  • Do I have any good reason to go somewhere unpleasant, dangerous, seamy?  nope.
Okay, off we go, then.

In the physical world, when I go into the bank there is a camera pointing at me, sometimes several of them.  I could easily wave to it, or give it a big smile.  I’m glad it’s there.  In addition, whoever looks at my image will be glad to see me because the bank wants me to be there, and wants my business!  Meanwhile, the bad guy won’t like it at all.  And that’s just fine with me.

Off you go, now.  You’ve reached the end of this essay, and you’ll click to some other place on the Internet.  Will it be another page on my site?  Or will it be somewhere else?  Just like that camera in the bank, the machinery will watch you do it and will tell me in due course.  But I was very glad you were here, and, naturally, I hope you’ll come back!

Tony Harwood-Jones

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1  By December 2011, an average of 100 people a day were coming to the website; some to read the Bible Handbook, others to explore a section on being an Anglican priest that I developed extensively through 2011, largely in response to what Google Analytics was telling me.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

2  This is the equivalent of keeping your wallet safe.  You accomplish it by making sure that your router and your computer can be operated by password alone.  Anti-virus and anti-spam software also play an important role.

3  Don’t be shy about reading a website’s privacy policy.  A personal website like this one may not have any, but most reputable corporate sites certainly do.

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