What Does Congress Care About? Check Their Browsing Histories
Buying Congress’s browsing history would feel like the perfect payback for its recent votes to betray your internet privacy. Too bad it’ll never happen. But at least you can still get a glimpse at what your representatives are looking at online.
Today the folks at GovTrack, an online service for monitoring bills before Congress, launched a page listing every visit from congressional offices or the White House to their site. The list won’t tell you which member of Congress or staffer visited each page, but it could help shine some light on what bills and issues really matter to Congress.
“It’s interesting to see what they think is important, and whether it’s what the public thinks is important,” GovTrack founder Joshua Tauberer says. “It’s interesting to see how they spend staff time.”
The project flags known congressional IP addresses to determine whether web traffic to the site is coming from the Capitol. But the intent isn’t so much to reveal Congress’s particular browsing habits as it is to make a point about internet privacy. Tauberer launched the page in response to Congress’s vote last week to stop a set of internet privacy rules that the Federal Communications Commission passed last year not only from going info effect. Most importantly, the rules would have banned internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T from collecting your browsing history and selling or disclosing that information without your active permission.
After the vote, several crowdfunding campaigns seeking to buy the browsing history of either Congress members or President Trump spread across social media. But selling individual subscribers’ data a la carte isn’t the revenue model that interests internet providers, and would only attract the ire of regulators. Rather, the companies—whose lobbyist groups strongly opposed the FCC rules—would most probably use the data to target ads themselves. At most, they would sell bundles of “anonymized” browsing data to advertisers to target their messages to audiences that, based on their internet activity, would seem the most receptive.
But GovTrack’s project shows how even the publicizing of anonymized data can unsettle. “I think I would be a little bit uncomfortable if I were a staffer in Congress doing potentially sensitive work knowing that my browsing history, even if it’s only the pages I visit on GovTrack, might be made available,” Tauberer says. “I think that’s the same uncomfortable feeling that the general public has when we browse sensitive information and we also don’t know where that information is going.”
Ad targeting can potentially reveal some of your online activity to people who share a computer with you or who simply happen to see the ads displayed in your browser. Should hackers leak data collected by ISPs onto the public web, they could also potentially de-anonymize it, revealing your browsing history to everyone.
Tauberer says the info GovTrack has released so far would be hard, though perhaps not impossible, to de-anonymize in part because the site isn’t publishing IP addresses, which would help the public connect congressional visits to particular computers. Still, the point isn’t to expose particular information about Congress. It’s to remind them how much web browsing data can be gathered not just by internet service providers, but by websites like Facebook, Google, as well as the advertising networks used across the web by nearly every online business that depends on advertising (including WIRED).
Today, companies face relatively few limits to what they can do with your browsing history without asking first. Maybe seeing its own browsing history online will nudge Congress to think again.