Google screenwise project watches your web viewing habits

We all know how the Internet tracks our every move. Every click, every link, everything we show interest in is analyzed and subjected to processing geared towards serving us more of what we want.

At least that is the concept.

Google is taking this in a new direction with a program called Google Screenwise. But rather than secretly track your moves, the concept is up front about its intention — it’s a hardware router device that collects your data. Sounds interesting, but are you in?

With all the controversy surrounding online privacy, with people in an uproar about Facebook constantly chiseling down its privacy and, this past week, photo site Instagram changing its terms of service, its almost oddly refreshing to see a tracking concept so, well, out in the open. Companies such as Facebook and Google have marketing plans based around penetrating people’s privacy; there is simply no other polite way to describe it. The more personal data you can provide, the more valuable you become and the more the companies can target advertising towards you. Free web services use this method for generating income, and most of it happens behind the scenes as you surf around. But people are starting to catch on, and they are beginning to stand up for their rights concerning privacy.

Unfortunately, as soon as you pop open a web browser, your privacy pretty much goes out the window. The Google Screenwise Project is interesting because it compensates people (Amazon gift certificates or monthly payments) and is very clear about its intent. The small box attaches to your home network and collects information about your viewing habits. It is not unlike a Nielsen box being hooked up to a traditional TV. There is also a web browser plug-in that can be installed as well for additional data. The rollout is starting with about 2500 participants who are compensated $100 for signing up and then $20 per month as long as the device is active.

One of the best uses this new concept may be aligned with is online video. Tracking interests and mouse clicks can collect data, but it will be interesting to see how the project evolves into video and online television viewing. While most video online involves some sort of generation of views, it needs a person signed in to a video web site account to be truly relevant for analytic processing. The Screenwise program could potentially tie in web video and web surfing, to show combined interest and track habits in a combined way.

Its important to note that the program is currently a closed project, is in beta and could evolve in any number of ways. And, its also possible that Google could shutter it after a few months depending on how successful it turns out to be. What is interesting is that this signifies a new way of web tracking, and since its on the web, it can correspond to many types of content, including video, audio and multimedia. It would not be too much of a stretch to see this router-based unit also targeted toward devices on the network, with full user analytic info available for every iPad, Kindle, Macbook, iPhone and Android device roaming around on the same wi-fi name.

While user tracking, cookies and other web methods do not seem to be going away anytime soon, it is interesting to see a voluntary program in motion, one where the company and the consumer work in unison to figure some stuff out and do some data crunching. It could also look like another step in extracting even more personal data from weary consumers, but at least this one is out in the open and mutually agreed upon with both parties involved.