Like many websites, Liberty Compass collects user data in the form of usage statistics and such. Naturally, being a liberty-oriented website, the question of user privacy weighed heavily on the mind of the creator.
Initially, the method of choice for the collection of these statistics was the Google Analytics suite. A recent email from a user offered up an alternative to the internet behemoth in the form of an open-source project called Piwik. Delighted at the opportunity to do away with potentially privacy-compromising Google Analytics, I happily made the switch to Piwik. In the ensuing email exchange, the more general topic of user tracking and privacy emerged.
As the reader is most likely aware, there are web browser add-ons designed to detect and block potentially privacy-compromising elements of web pages. As it turns out, defeating most, if not all, of these add-ons from a web admin perspective is a trivial matter. In other words, with a few simple changes, the admin can continue to track users even if they are using such privacy add-ons. This came as quite a surprise to me, as I’m an intermediate web designer at best and a novice in the arena of privacy-conscious web design. The revelation led me to the following dilemma: Whose rights prevail? My property rights, as the website owner, or the user’s right to privacy?
My initial reaction was to err on the side of privacy. After all, this whole question arose from the quest to protect the privacy of the users. It felt unethical to circumvent the efforts of users who had gone to the trouble to protect their online privacy by using these browser add-ons. I was already crafting a reply email explaining this gut reaction when it occurred to me that this is my website. It is my property. I have the best, most legitimate claim to its use and configuration. It turns out that I want to have accurate statistical data pertaining to my website.
By way of an analogy, albeit a somewhat silly one, let us suppose that I were running a bakery on main street which was open to the public. Suppose further that a subset of my customer base came in to the bakery wearing wide-brimmed hats in order to provide anonymity from my security cameras. If I made an adjustment to my security cameras that enabled hat-penetrating x-ray mode, have I done anything unethical? There is a sign on the front door clearly stating that I conduct video surveillance. Perhaps it doesn’t say that I’m really good at it, but the sign is there nonetheless. I would maintain that, as the property owner, it is my natural right to conduct my affairs on my property in the manner in which I see fit.