It’s the digital equivalent of fighting fire with fire.
A Raleigh software developer is experimenting with technology to track internet usage in Congress and at the White House.
Matt Feld, a 24-year-old Raleigh entrepreneur and self-styled data scientist, says he is not out to expose the secret online double lives of politicians. He says the value of Congresswebhistory.com will be to track which media sources – The New York Times or Breitbart – are consulted by policy makers in advance of votes and debates on climate change, health care and other major issues.
Mostly, Feld wants to turn the tables on Washington’s power brokers to persuade them to reinstate the online privacy protections they repealed earlier this year.
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“This data is powerful,” Feld said. “People who have this data have enormous influence over our behavior.”
The April repeal of a landmark Obama-era online privacy law cleared the way for AT&T, Verizon, Spectrum and other internet service providers to release customer information to marketers without obtaining the customer’s permission. Google and Facebook already have this right – which is why you see pop-up adds on your screen related to your online searches – and members of Congress who voted for the relaxation of online privacy rules said internet service providers should be governed by the same standards.
Before the repeal, internet service providers had to obtain customers’ permission before sharing web browsing habits to third parties; but now these companies can release a customer’s browsing history and app usage data without permission, unless a customer specifically requests to be protected.
Feld’s experiment generated buzz after a June story on Vice Media’s Motherboard channel, but some in the coding community reacted with skepticism. Feld subsequently hosted a Q&A on the Reddit social media aggregator site, which attracted its share of ribald jokes along with serious questions about the legality, ethics and value of snooping on staffers and officials in the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, White House and Federal Communications Commission, the scope of Feld’s data sweep.
One Reddit commenter noted that members of Congress get their news from a daily clipping service, and another suggested it might be more efficacious to submit a Freedom of Information Act request for browser history. Some asked why they should trust Feld not to fabricate his results, or not to expand his appetite for data collection beyond his current interests.
“This is nothing but a self promotion,” posted a commenter with the Reddit handle itsthattimeagain. “It makes no sense on any level. Nothing interesting will ever come out of this.”
Feld said he has consulted with online privacy experts at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. Anne Klinefelter, a privacy law professor at UNC Chapel Hill, said she referred Feld to lawyers for legal advice. She said privacy laws relating to internet surfing are murky and the risks are not understood by the public.
“Most of us do not have an easy time understanding how our activity online is tracked and analyzed and used,” Klinefelter said by email. “That tracking and use is fairly invisible to us. We do not see the eyes of someone reading over our shoulders when we sit at our computers.”
“But a lot of tracking and analyzing is possible and is increasingly of interest,” she said. “Matt seems to be working to make the privacy risks of that tracking more understandable as we seek the proper balance between competing interests.”
Feld’s previous foray into public affairs involved a technology to generate customized protest letters to North Carolina lawmakers to express opposition to House Bill 2, the now-partially repealed state law that required transgender people to use state government bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates, not their gender identity. That HB2 project, Speaktogether,org, was never released publicly and tested with fewer than 100 users, before morphing into the current effort.
Feld said he has worked out one logistical problem: screening out irrelevant internet usage by Capitol Hill interns and White House administrative staff, so that his data reflects internet usage by the people who wield power. Whatever internet usage patterns he gleans would be no more specific than the branch of government where the computer or smartphone connects to the internet; the code would not reveal which person was doing the browsing.
One limitation is that Feld can only track internet usage to sites that are participating in his project by hosting Feld’s digital tool. Currently, he is testing his technology on 20 sites, some of which contacted him after the Vice Media story ran. That means that Feld’s plug-in is not monitoring the vast majority of internet usage by federal officials.
Feld declined to disclose the 20 participating sites, but said they fall in three general areas: pornography, technical sites and blogs, and news/media. He offered that not all of the participating sites have been visited online by federal internet users.
And he declined to reveal the results of his data sweep so far but noted that the data reveals “several interesting things.” He estimates it will take up to 12 months to collect enough data to release his findings publicly. Feld has been testing his tool since early July and plans to release it next week for public use. The open-source code will be free, but anyone who installs it will be sending federal internet user data to Feld’s in-box.
“We want to stay as quiet as possible until we have a critical mass of data to generate interesting insights,” Feld said. “We don’t want to prematurely release the data and get half a story.”