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We Built a Tool That Gets Congress' Browser History

-- Enormous thanks to Sina Khanifar and Holmes Wilson for the inspiration and guidance that made this whole thing possible

What is it?

We have built a tool that allows any website owner to track what Congress, the White House, and the FCC are doing on their site. For example: If someone runs a website, they can use our tools to see how often members of Congress visit their site, what they click on, and what they view.

Further, we will collect and run analytics on that data, as well as the data of all other participating sites, to discover interesting information about how Congress visits and interacts with the web. And yes, this includes browsing history.

As we grow and more sites use our service, here are some examples of the kind of things we will potentially be able to learn:

  • What kind of news sites elected officials are reading. For example, is the Senate reading more CNN or Fox? Does the White House read more Breitbart than Congress?
  • Do our elected officials spend a lot of time on entertainment sites? What kind of sites do they visit while on the job?
  • Where do our elected officials get their scientific information? Do they read a lot of research articles? How scientifically literate are they?
  • Is anyone in Congress or the White House watching porn during work hours? If so, what kind, and for how long?

How We Did It

We are using a method similar to what CongressEdits and GovTrack.us use to track when visitors to their site are actually visiting from Congressional buildings or EOP (Executive Office of the President) buildings.

CongressEdits is a tool that watches Wikipedia edits and publishes an announcement any time someone from Congress or the White House makes an anonymous Wikipedia change. They work because Wikipedia publishes the IP address of anybody making an anonymous change. CongressEdits watches those changes and compares the IP's to a set of IP blocks known to correspond to the White House and Congressional buildings.

Our tool uses a similar methodology to CongressEdits, and packages it for use in any website. In addition, we were able to create a few extra features:

1. CongressEdits and GovTrack use IP blocks that are associated with Federal Buildings such as the Capitol, Senate Office Buildings, the White House, The Eisenhower Building, and others. However, those buildings also have publicly available hotspots. We will work to isolate away general public information so that we have access to more accurate information.

2. We have also included IP Blocks associated with the FCC buildings, so that in addition to Congress and the White House, we capture FCC browsing data as well.

3. Our tool is extremely easy to implement: copy and paste one line of javascript, and immediately start tracking what Congress, the White House, and the FCC are looking at on your blog, news outlet, or other website.

How Are We Going to Release the Data?

The FCC and Congress are saying that our browsing patterns are safe because all our data will be anonymized and sold as metadata. With that in mind, we will be releasing anonymous metadata of Government Internet Patterns, as well as analysis and data science results.

The goal here is show that even in that form, selling personal browsing data is harmful and a clear violation of our privacy as internet users.

The message we are trying to send is simple: we shouldn’t have to trade our personal privacy just to be able to get online.

Interested in Tracking the Government on Your Site?

We have built a tool that any website owner can use for free. Just drop in our javascript plugin, you have access to a dashboard with data and analytics about government visits and interactions with your site.

If you want to get involved, and see what Congress is doing on your site, just send me an email at matt@speaktogether.org. We can set up your account, as well as help modify your privacy policy so that it's clear that you are keeping track of Federal visits to your site.

What Happens Next?

The more websites that use our tool, the more data we have about Federal internet browsing history, and the more we can do with it.

As this project grows, we will publish regular updates on what we are doing, and regular posts that breakdown new data, and what the federal government is doing.

If you are interested in following the project and getting updates on Federal Browsing data, enter your email below. If you are a website owner who wants this tool, email me at matt@speaktogether.org

 

You can also check us out on http://www.congresswebhistory.com

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