We’ll Be Watching You

At 3:41am GMT on 8 August 2007, Asia Sentinel received an unusual visitor. Someone with an IP address in North Carolina came to the site apparently looking for naked 11-year-olds.

We know — we have it on video.

New software available freely on the web allows website owners to track their readers’ movements minutely. The data provided by ClickTale, software used by Asia Sentinel, includes an analytical breakdown of how users came to the site, what they did once they got there, and the times and places of access. The software also provides heat-mapping to show users’ mouse activity on the site and, most groundbreaking, a video of those actions.

Our visitor that day was to be disappointed — the seemingly incoherent search for “sexy a will sexy naked woman 11 years old” led the searcher to Asia Sentinel’s Dec. 22, 2006 story, Sexy Video Titillates Indonesia, result No. 15 in a Google search for those terms. After a quick look at the head-and-shoulders shot of an Indonesian woman and finding a story about a political scandal that had nothing to do with naked 11-year-olds, our curious visitor beat a hasty retreat. It was all over in 4.71 seconds.

We traced the visitor’s IP address — basically, a computer address — to a city in North Carolina. In case we were interested in tracking down this possible child porn-seeker, a Google Maps satellite image pointed us where to look first.

Trawling through our analytics, we found the North Carolina visitor wasn’t alone when it comes to unusual tastes. In the last week, the Sentinel has enjoyed traffic from people looking for “sexy video with old women” (someone in Greece), “refugee asian looking for man for marry” (Slovakia), “manila airport scanner” (US), “video clips islam sex” (an early riser in the UK who conducted the search at 5:53am), and, worryingly, “child india porn” (a researcher in France?). Others, thankfully for us, were looking for coverage of political and economic events in Asia.

Of course, such sophisticated tracking technology isn’t new to the Internet — police have been working with Internet service providers for years to combat cybercrime. But the increasing availability of free software like ClickTale makes it possible for any Joe Blog to become a sleuth. Recently, an impulse to cyberactivism has been laid bare especially in China where spontaneous mobs have sprouted from online communities to denounce and sometimes punish perceived crimes and criminals. First we had citizen journalists, now we have citizen Robocops.

Charles Mok, chairman of the Hong Kong Internet Society said, “This type of software is pretty commonly available.” He’s not surprised that ClickTale can be used to trace potentially criminal behaviour but says the important point lies in the level of access.

Until recently, powerful software like ClickTale was the domain of technology specialists and cops, but as entrepreneurial developers create free applications that are more numerous and more powerful than ever the barriers to access and operation have been demolished. “The front end of the work can be done directly by the users themselves,” Mok said.

ClickTale’s co-founder and CEO Tal Schwartz says the development of the software was commercially driven and he wasn’t conscious of the fact that the technology could be used to track cybercrime. “Our intention was to improve website usability, increase revenues and find errors. We have not heard of anyone applying ClickTale to track cybercrime until now,” the Israel-based Shwartz wrote in an email. “We would like to see ClickTale continue to be used for purposes that improve peoples’ lives. Preventing cybercrime is a worthy cause.”

It should be pointed out, however, that an IP address on its own is not enough to track down an individual user without co-operation from an Internet service provider.

Though it has been receiving positive reviews, not everyone thinks ClickTale’s new tracking software is so worthy. Web technology commentators have called into question issues of consent over the sharing of such information as IP addresses and online reading behaviour. Blogger Alice Marwich, a PhD student in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, calls ClickTale’s approach to privacy concerns “unbelievably irresponsible”. Users not wanting their data shared by ClickTale need to install a cookie to block that information. She writes on her blog, Tiara.org: “There are plenty of ways they could require informed consent from users, but they know that marketers far prefer users not to know about tracking, because users will then opt out. These types of technologies should not be opt-out in the first place”.

Influential tech blog Read/WriteWeb raises a similar point about the sharing of such data by asking, “Who owns our attention or behavioral information?” In that post, writer Alex Iskold recounts that about half of the people at a recent Open Data workshop in New York City thought tracking people via cookies — as ClickTales does — is wrong. Questions arise as to who owns the data: The content providers, the technology providers, the users? It’s an issue still being debated, and there are no easy answers.

Whatever the case, porn-seekers with nefarious intent ought to be treading more carefully online. With the ready availability of easy-to-use tracking software, the eyes of potentially millions could be on their every move. Should that make the rest of us uncomfortable? Charles Mok has an ominous answer: “I wouldn’t judge whether it’s positive or negative — it’s just inevitable.”