MIT researchers build web history-sharing platform to learn more about browsing habits and give users an idea of what information Google collects on them
New software has been created that lets web users share their browsing history with friends and the general public.
The system has been made by researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), who hope to collect information on the type of browsing data that big web companies such as Google currently collects and mines.
The researchers also hope that systems like theirs could inspire changes in the regulatory environment that would give web users more control over the type of data that is collected on them.
Called Eyebrowse, the system was presented in a paper last week at the Association for Computing Machinery’s conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, in San Francisco.
The findings of the paper suggest that web users could find it “worth their while” to share data about their online activities.
“We thought of a pretty long list of specific applications of this data that were useful to the end user,” says David Karger, an MIT professor of electrical engineering.
“Awareness of where your friends are, the ability to run into them, the ability to go somewhere and discover that they were there before, and you may want to talk to them about this thing that you both saw. There’s the ability to discover what’s popular, in a very broad way. There’s collaborative filtering.”
Eyebrowse is made up of two parts: a dedicated website and an extension to Google’s Chrome Web browser.
The extension works by users adding specific URLs to a whitelist. User’s visits to pages on whitelisted sites are then recorded. Users can also turn Eyebrowse off with one click, enabling a ‘private’ mode.
A pull down list, which MIT claims resembles a Facebook-style news feed, also lets members of the Eyebrowse community see who else has visited the web pages, and use a chat window to talk to other Eyebrowse users.
“Google has this interesting 50,000-foot view of the Internet, because they know all the clicks,” said Karger.
“Most people don’t. There are lots of interesting questions about social dynamics. What are Democrats reading? You can’t answer that question right now. There are things that the population as a whole would be interested in knowing, and also things that scholars would be interested in knowing.
“The trackers don’t give us a choice about what gets tracked,” he adds. “And I’d really like to demonstrate that giving people a choice has positive benefits. And maybe someday that will turn into legislation that says that people have the right to decide whether they get tracked or not, in certain circumstances. If people do buy into voluntary tracking, then maybe we don’t need involuntary tracking, and that would be pretty wonderful,” he said.
“But of course, it only works if people want to do it. So a lot of this paper was about understanding whether and how people want to do this.”
The researchers say that the product as potential, and they would eventually like to see Eyebrowse become a commercial product.
But there is potential, and I hope to eventually see it in a commercial product.”