MIT researchers have developed technology that lets people share their browsing history -- or just selected parts of it -- with friends and the general public.
The new system, called Eyebrowse, gives researchers access to the same type of browsing data that big companies like Google and Facebook already collect.
"There's global analytics," said David Karger, an MIT professor of electrical engineering who has worked on the team project since 2010. "Google has this interesting 50,000-foot view of the Internet because they know all the clicks. Most people don't."
He added that there are interesting questions about social dynamics that this data could help to answer, as well.
"What are Democrats reading? You can't answer that question right now," Karger said in a statement. "There are things that the population as a whole would be interested in knowing, and also things that scholars would be interested in knowing."
While it may sound like just one more way for people to lose some semblance of online privacy, the researcher said he hopes it actually will lead to more privacy.
"The trackers don't give us a choice about what gets tracked," he explained. "And I'd really like to demonstrate that giving people a choice has positive benefits. And maybe someday that will turn into legislation that says that people have the right to decide whether they get tracked or not, in certain circumstances. If people do buy into voluntary tracking, then maybe we don't need involuntary tracking, and that would be pretty wonderful."
Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said he doesn't have privacy concerns over the new system because users can opt-in to use it, or not.
"It means Google doesn't own the data like it does today," he said. "It democratizes the data, so smaller companies can get access. Theoretically, this could increase competition and innovation because there are more companies innovating."
If people were using Eyebrowse, the result could very well lead to better privacy, Moorhead said.
"This gives me less privacy concerns than if my personal data were owned by a corporation that makes money off other people's personal information," he said. "It opens up opportunities for so many other companies and innovations."
Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, agreed.
"Users can select what info they want to share," he said. "By letting people share their own info, they can select what's ok and what's not. I don't want to share my whole browser history, but only the elements that I won't find intrusive. And by controlling what information is shared, you could get more accurate personalized service."
The Eyebrowse system, which is not yet publicly available, is based on an extension built for Google's Chrome browser. When the extension is installed, an icon, which looks like an eye, appears in the task bar and is either shown as an open eye when the tracker is on or a closed eye when it's not.
Users can create a whitelist of sites that the system is allowed to track. And Eyebrowse can be turned off for private browsing.
Aside from social and business research, MIT's Karger noted that the shared information could let users' friends know where they're going to be on a given night so they can meet up or let them know you tried a new restaurant or pair of sneakers so they can ask you about it.
"There's the ability to discover what's popular, in a very broad way," he said. "There's collaborative filtering."