Mouse movements give shopping clues

Debate grows over how much web site owners should tell visitors about information gleaned

What is my mouse telling web site owners?

Geneva, Switzerland (GenevaLunch.com) – The news that Google and the CIA are teaming up to predict the future based on what we’re already doing online has prompted yet another media debate over privacy and how much information is spilled by our online behaviour.

Spooks might worry the public but our use of the Internet is already providing a wealth of details many of us never consider.

A pair of students at Emory University in the US have just shown, at the SIGIR conference on information retrieval, at Unimail in Geneva in late July, how our mouse movements can tell companies whether we intend to buy or not, when we’re shopping online (Agichtein and Guo paper, pdf).

Such clues could provide valuable information for advertisers, say the authors. “The results show that our method is more effective than the current state-of-the-art techniques, both for detection of searcher goals, and for an important practical application of predicting ad clicks for a given search session.”

Advertising Age has jumped into the debate about how much web site owners should tell their customers, about the information they are able to gather, with an article arguing that sites should be more open about the information they receive about visitors.

But the ad industry’s bible also argues that the debate over privacy is far too polarized for a sensible discussion to take place.

“For consumers who are unaware that sites (and other third parties) are tracking their online navigation (and often sharing this information with each other in order to serve better-performing ads), this can seem like some sort of invasion of their privacy (even though the data collected cannot personally identify consumers),” writes Omar Tawakol.

“And frankly I understand that reaction. The industry must do a better job of telling consumers exactly when they are being tracked and what kind of information is being collected about them.”