Where you spend your time online can reveal a lot about you, and many people prefer to keep that part of their online behaviour private.
So how would you feel if a stranger sat down at your computer and started to explore your web browser history? As CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains, a new research project from MIT called "Eyebrowse" wants you to make your web browser history public.
What is Eyebrowse?
Eyebrowse is a tool that runs inside your web browser. Basically, it keeps track of all the websites you visit, and optionally allows you to share parts of your web history with others.
CBC Forum on online browser privacy
"I think your online browsing history should be very private. Only for you to see and not for anybody else to see." — a comment from Dohn Pratt on the CBC Forum chat on online browser privacy. Read the full discussion here.
So, for instance, if you look at my Eyebrowse profile, you'll see a big long list of the websites I visited recently. You'll see that I visited Techmeme a few times, and that I visited Hacker News throughout the day. You'll also see that I read a few articles on CBC.ca, and you can see exactly which articles I viewed.
As well, you can also see how much time I spent on each site.
If you've ever sat down at someone else's computer, and snooped around in their browser history, it's kind of like that, except that Eyebrowse doesn't publish everything. It's not supposed to. You can choose which sites you share information about, and which ones you don't — I could exclude all visits to my bank's website, for instance.
Why would anyone want to make their browsing public?
Amy Zhang, one of the MIT researchers who created Eyebrowse, explains that one of the project's goals is to make online spaces a bit more like the world around us.
"In real life, you have places that are private and places that are public. My home is private." she said.
"So when I go outside, I can see where a crowd is gathering.. In those public spaces, you can see who else is around, and see where people are going, and see what's interesting."
Eyebrowse suggests we might start to think of certain places online as public — the sort of places you wouldn't mind people knowing you go, in the same way I wouldn't mind someone running into me on the street me on the street, or bumping into me at the library.
Besides tracking history, what does Eyebrowse let users do?
It has a few other interesting features. Because Eyebrows knows who's visiting which sites and at what times, and because all of that information is public, it allows you to connect with other people who visit the same sites as you.
Let's say you and I both visit the same obscure website, dedicated to our shared passion — ukulele music. Eyebrowse lets us chat right on the site. Or we can leave notes for other Eyebrows users who visit the site. So there's a social function.
There's also a really interesting self-monitoring aspect to this.When your behaviour is tracked and quantified by a service like Eyebrowse, it's easy to look and see how much time you're spending on Twitter, or Wikipedia, or news sites or wherever you visit frequently.
Are there privacy concerns with sharing this much data?
Absolutely. And part of what Eyebrowse is trying to do is remind people that whether they know it or not, most of their online activity is already tracked — by ad networks, large social networking sites, and third-party analytics companies, for example.
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Pretty much anywhere you go online, you're being tracked — and creating a sort of data exhaust, which is often used for advertising purposes.
"We know that this data is very useful, because these companies obviously spend a lot of time and effort to get that data," said Zhang. "However, the people that actually create the data don't get to see their own data, and they don't get to see the benefits of their own data, or build or learn on top of that for themselves."
The point is that if you're going to be tracked and followed around online, you might as well have access to the data trail you produce — or at least have the choice to access it. Eyebrowse is exploring what that might look like.
Will people want to use Eyebrowse long-term?
I've only been using Eyebrowse for the past day or so. And I've been pretty selective about which sites I allow Eyebrowse to report on. Zhang also said there are certain sites that it simply won't report on, like Facebook or your Google search results.
But the thing that struck me most about using Eyebrowse was the feeling that someone was looking over my shoulder, virtually. And personally, it was difficult to mentally shift out of a private mindset, into a more public mindset.
But again, that's part of the point. Even if you think your web browsing is an inherently private activity, it's not. There's always someone virtually looking over your shoulder.
When I first heard about Eyebrowse, it seemed like a type of radical transparency — sharing your browser history online. But the more I learned about it, the more I realized this is just taking the shadowy world of web tracking, and shining some light on it.