Coventry University project to understand how websites track users’ data recruiting ‘citizen scientists’ to help

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Coventry University researchers are leading on a new initiative to understand how websites and apps collect and track visitor user data, recruiting participants from all over the world to help.

‘Citizen Scientists Investigating Cookies and App GDPR compliance’ (CSI-COP), is a project led by the university’s Centre for Computational Science and Mathematical Modelling (CSM) and the Centre for Post Digital Cultures (CPC), and is a collaboration between nine other organisations.

The aim is to investigate what data websites and apps are automatically tracking when a user visits its respective web pages, and which have been set up to be more respectful of users’ privacy.

Many web pages use forms of tracking, including ‘cookies’ to analyse a user’s journey through the websites or apps pages (if they used a hyperlink or accessed the site directly), monitoring information such as the time spent browsing, and where the visitor goes to next.

The collected user data is incredibly valuable and is often shared between third parties, including data brokers, and sometimes sold to online advertisers, who target the same individual users with related products and services based on their previous browsing activities.

Although websites and apps now must ask visitors’ permission to allow cookies due to the GDPR legislation, it is often more convenient to accept their use since it is harder to disable these ‘cookies’ on some visited platforms than others.

CSI-COP is recruiting members of the general public to join the project as international ‘citizen scientists’ to support further investigation into what cookie notices and privacy policies websites and apps use by providing full training to volunteers to be able to analyse the approach and collect the relevant data required.

Coventry University academics, Dr Huma Shah, Assistant Professor at CSM, and Professor Neil Forbes, Director of Creative Cultures, are leading the research project.

Dr Shah said: “The GDPR, though a strong regulation, needs to be better enforced. Before GDPR, internet users had very little knowledge of how their data was being processed, analysed and sold.

“Even now, different websites use various strategies to get people to agree to cookies or make it difficult to opt-out.

“What the CSI-COP project aims to do is not only raise awareness of online privacy, but to generate a free searchable online repository of citizen science investigations uncovering tracking technologies in websites and in apps.

“To do this effectively, we need to recruit plenty of everyday people to act as citizen scientists to help us carry out our investigation and raise awareness around this crucial issue.”

Training to be a CSI-COP citizen scientist consists of a short course called ‘Your Right to Privacy Online’. It can be taken by either attending one of CSI-COP’s free online or face-to-face workshops, or by completing the course in your own time and taking a quick test.

Once passed, volunteers can start assessing any websites they visit or apps they use and how they collect user data.
Prof Neil Forbes added: “The CSI-COP project is a huge undertaking, but we believe it is so important for us to understand exactly how websites and apps are tracking our data so we can find better ways to challenge it and promote privacy.

“We would encourage anyone interested in helping to sign up and enable us to make sense of how our data is being tracked online.”

The CSI-COP project has been funded by the EU’s Horizon2020 research and innovation programme and will end in June 2023.

To find out more about the course, visit the CSI-COP ‘Your Right to Privacy Online’ page at https://csi-cop.eu/informal-education-mooc/ or visit the website’s FAQ page at https://csi-cop.eu/faq/