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MIT Project Lets Users Go Public with a Private Activity — Web Browsing

Interested in sharing what you're browsing with others? Right now, companies have the upper hand in that. They monitor your Web activities and then use that data to serve more of what they think you want in the form of banner ads — whether it's really wanted or not. A research team at MIT has developed a set of tools that deliver similar insights, but for the use of the people actually doing the browsing.

Eyebrowse, as it's called, allows users to track their own browsing habits, make visible to others the sites they're visiting, add notes to pages, allow for chats through the Web site, and control what is and isn't visible to others. The researchers are hoping that one outcome of the project will be changes to regulations that give individuals more control over the online data collected about them and how it can be used.

As a paper on the project explained, "While the Web contains many social Web sites, people are generally left in the dark about the activities of other people traversing the Web as a whole." Eyebrowse is intended to explore the "benefits and privacy considerations" inherent in allowing a "real-time, publicly accessible stream of Web activity." That paper was recently presented at an Association for Computing Machinery conference, "Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing."

PhD student Amy Zhang, MIT professor David Karger and newly minted master's degree holder Joshua Blum, all affiliated with MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), developed a hefty list of benefits: awareness of where friends are or were online, the ability to "bump into them" and the ability to talk with them online about something both users are visiting.

But the real benefits, which are tied to the analytics generated by Eyebrowse, are social. "Few publicly accessible repositories of Web activity data exist due to concerns related to the de-anonymization of anonymous logs," the report stated. "But if users chose to share their Web activity publicly, research and development could flourish."

As Karger said in an MIT story about the project, "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."

Also, Karger added, Web trackers currently don't give people a choice about being tracked or not. He's hoping one day "to demonstrate that giving people a choice has positive benefits." Eventually, that might turn into laws regulating the practice of tracking. "If people do buy into voluntary tracking, then maybe we don't need involuntary tracking, and that would be pretty wonderful."

Right now, Eyebrowse has three components: a Web site, a Google Chrome Web browser extension and an application programming interface.

Users who install the extension get an icon on the task bar that provides Eyebrowse features on a pulldown menu. One function lets the user add the site domain to a whitelist, which means each visit to the site will be recorded by the system. Other functions let the user turn off Eyebrowse for private browsing, report visits not on the whitelist, list members of the Eyebrowse community who have visited a given page as well as any comments they have made about the page or open a chat window to text with other Eyebrowse users.

The Web site resembles a Facebook news feed, with a listing of the pages recently visited by members of the Eyebrowse community or a listing of just those members "followed" by a given user. The site also has data visualization utilities to show a user his or her own browsing histories and those of the Eyebrowse community at large.

The API allows developers to integrate the program into their own applications in order "to build up a publicly visible map of the ebbs and flows of traffic on the Web," according to the Eyebrowse Web site. "By contributing your data to this public repository of Web activity, you'll make new research and exciting projects possible."

"What we have built in terms of potential applications only scratches the surface of what is possible with this data," Zhang said in the MIT article.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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