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How ComScore can track your mouse clicks

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There's one question no one thought to ask: How did comScore know that all those paid clicks had disappeared from the world's largest search engine?

In late February, the well-known web research outfit unveiled a particularly juicy report claiming that Google's paid-click rate was on the wane - at least in the States. Judging from Google's eventual response, the report wasn't too far from the mark. The search giant acknowledges that paid clicks are down, insisting it's on a mission to improve "the relevance" of its online ads.

Over the next several weeks, tech-happy pundits spent countless columns debating the effect of this click dip on Google finances - which turned out to be no effect at all - but nobody stopped to wonder where comScore's data came from. Or why it hit so close to Google's home.

Heck, the Reston, Virginia-based comScore has churned out such numbers for years, and for years, the press has largely overlooked its behind-the-scenes practices. Which is odd. This is a publicly-traded company with a $600m market cap - an outfit that just posted a record $26.4m in first quarter revenues. Plus, it's a story worth telling. Those behind-the-scenes practices are more interesting than you might imagine.

ComScore logo

comScore's logo

comScore tracks the online movements of more than two million people in 170 countries, including a million in the US. Thanks to its very own tracking software - sitting on end-user PCs from Japan to the UK - it sees not just Google ad clicks, but every other breed of internet usage, from audio and video streaming to secure web sessions. That's right, secure web sessions. If a user visits an online banking site or a health records site, comScore sees what the user sees - and it sees what the user types.

And it often knows the user's name. Even if multiple people use a machine - Bob, his wife Jane, and their daughter Sue, for instance - comScore can tell one from the other. You see, the company also tracks mouse movements and keystrokes, identifying the telltale habits of each user. Nine times out of ten, it doesn't just record that Christmas Amazon purchase. It records who made it.

Naturally, comScore says that users must actively download its software and explicitly agree to such tracking. "They must provide not just consent but affirmative consent," Josh Chasin, comScore's chief research officer, told us during a recent phone interview. "They must affirm that they've read our privacy policy." But that tells only part of the story.

There are documented cases where third-party operations have installed comScore's software without consent. And even when users do give the OK, they may not realize what they're consenting to - as is so often the case with web-based user agreements. We can't help but wonder, for instance, if most users realize that comScore knows who they are even they decline to say who they are.

As Chasin explains, the company reserves the right to match a user's internet activity with additional personal data from credit reporting agencies like Experian and Equifax. If the user keys his address into a web form, for instance, the company may take that address to an outside firm, retrieving the user's race, his gender, the size of his household, and more.

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