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Mozilla to extend Test Pilot beyond Firefox

The organization behind Firefox wants hard data on software usage--and not just for the browser. And it's stepping carefully through the privacy minefield.

Mozilla, the organization behind Firefox, plans to expand a forthcoming program called Test Pilot to supply developers with detailed usage patterns not just about the open-source Web browser, but also Thunderbird and other projects.


Mozilla unveiled Test Pilot last March, describing it as a plan to get usage feedback from a full 1 percent of Firefox users, not just the technically sophisticated early-adopter crowd. On Tuesday, Mozilla's Aza Raskin fleshed out the Test Pilot details, though it remains in concept form only for now, with Mozilla trying to hire a project leader.

"It's not just Firefox that needs a usability lab. Thunderbird needs one. SeaMonkey needs one. Every Mozilla Labs project needs one. Test Pilot is a platform--starting as a Firefox extension--on top of which anything can be put through usability-testing boot camp," Raskin said.

Test Pilot will be an on-demand system: rather than recording data constantly, it sends the minimum amount of data back to Mozilla servers in response to a specific question when it's asked. Such test results will shared openly.

One big issue for such program is privacy. Here's what Raskin shared about the matter:

Security and privacy is of the utmost importance when dealing with user data. Just like Firefox, Test Pilot will always honor your privacy. Data is only reported in anonymous aggregate, with anything personally identifiable stripped out. Transparency is built in--all collected data is available to the public.

Even anonymized data can be revealing, though, as AOL found after it released search data to researchers. Although names had been removed, search data revealed enough to identify some people, and AOL's chief technology officer and two others lost their jobs after the matter.

One big difference with Test Pilot, though, is that Mozilla plans to release only collective data, not an individual's data. "We'll only collect aggregate anonymized data, publish all results under open-content licenses, and review every test to make sure your privacy is held sacred," Raskin said.