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Ethics & Compliance Update: Spotlight on Tracking Digital Behaviour

February 23rd, 2023

Tracking digital behaviour - i.e. automated tracking using client website tracking cookies or specifically installed apps on respondents’ phones - is an area where members have identified a need for more guidance

Although it may appear at first glance that there is not much guidance available on the specific topic tracking of digital behaviour, we highlight here some existing resources that will help you.


We can summarise the BHBIA's position on tracking digital behaviour as follows:

  • Definition: A technique used to understand how individuals behave online. This is either done by directing individuals to a particular website and tracking cookies or, more recently, by asking individuals to install applications on their smart devices to track websites and content over a period of time.
  • Ethical approach: Conduct necessary due diligence of applications used to understand use of personal data, data storage and provision for international data transfer (if applicable). Transparently communicate the approach to respondents if relying on informed consent. Give respondents an easy way of supplying it and withdrawing it. You must get consent from respondents to install and use software such as an app. You must also inform them of its purpose, the type of data it collects and any impact it will have on their device’s functioning or performance e.g. reducing battery life.

Section G-2:


You must have a lawful basis e.g. consent to use an app to gather personal data from a respondent’s device and tell them:

  • what it does and why you want to use it
  • the type of data it collects and what it will be used for
  • anything affecting their data and communication: e.g. the amount of data to be stored on the device, any data transfer requirements and the estimated levels, the type and frequency of notifications
  • any impact on their device’s performance such as reducing battery life
  • how to remove the app from their device 

Your privacy notice should make clear what permissions the app will require to function (e.g.: access to camera, gallery image, contacts, browser history, etc.), the cookies placed by the app, data retention period/policy; and your commitment to continue notifying those who have the app installed about changes to the notice.

We suggest you take legal advice if an app uses a location device or tracks activities without user engagement (e.g. passive listening) to ensure that you aren’t contravening data protection or privacy rights.

Section G-4


Under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations you must obtain consent before placing cookies on a web-user’s computer. This may be implied consent, but you must disclose the use of cookies. You must also clearly describe the data being collected and explain how it will be used. This information must be easily accessible.

Download the full January 2023 Legal and Ethical Guidelines here

The following areas are considered:

  • Privacy by design 
  • Legal framework
  • Encryption
  • Privacy settings
  • Data management - retention, location and access

This guide was specifically created to address the fact that members were increasingly using technology solutions from new providers as a result of the pandemic - for example, Electronic signature (e-signature) of consent forms, Automatic recording transcription software, File-sharing software, Tele- or video-conference software. However, the principles apply across a range of digital applications.

Download the Guide from the Privacy & Data Protection section of the website

The MRS definition of Online Research is broad reaching - as well as the more obvious activities it includes any involvement of participants in "A measurement system which tracks web usage".

View the MRS guidance here

The BHBIA’s Ethics & Compliance Committee is providing this guidance as general information for its members. It is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice should be taken in relation to any specific legal problems or matters. Whilst every reasonable effort is made to ensure the information is accurate, no responsibility for its accuracy or for any consequences of relying on it is assumed by the BHBIA.