December 14, 2015


Frequently Asked Questions

Top 3 Questions from Prospective Users

How does Web Historian make money?

It doesn’t. Web Historian is part of an academic research project funded by American University in Washington D.C.

How does Web Historian work?

You can use Web Historian if you use Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer. Web Historian is a browser extension for Google Chrome, the world’s most popular web browser. Chrome can easily import browsing history from Firefox or IE, just follow these steps. Web Historian is not yet available for Safari, but a Safari extension is planned. If you would like to know when the Safari extension is available please join our mailing list (see the form on the right).

Web Historian is a browser extension that tells your browser how to visualize its own data. If you want to see the data Web Historian uses, just go to the History menu on your web browser to see a list of websites. Web Historian allows your browser to turn this list into interactive visualizations (Websites Visited, Time Heatmap, Network, Search Words & Data Table). You can see your visualizations and your data never leaves your own computer, just like opening a file on your computer with your web browser. The technology is client-side Javascript and any interested programmers are welcome to see the open source code on github.

Can Web Historian access browsing history from “Incognito” or private browsing tabs?

No. Your web browser does not keep history logs from incognito or private tabs thus it is not part of the history data that Web Historian uses.

Top 3 Questions from Users

How do I disable the “nag” screen reminding me to consider participating in the research project?

Go to the bottom of the home page and click on “Settings” then click to disable reminders to participate in the research project.

Can I customize the website categories?

Not yet. Currently we have categorized the top visited U.S. websites, but it may be that certain categories of sites you would like to group together are in a large category such as .com or We’re working on adding this feature!

I participated in the research project but I didn’t mean to or I changed my mind, can I delete my data from the research project?

Yes. Click on the “View on Server” icon: screenshot-2016-09-21-14-51-34. When you arrive click on “Clear your contributions” at the bottom right of the page. If you never consented via the survey then your browsing data was never used for research. If you did consent your data will not be used for future research from the time you delete your contributions.

More FAQs

Can I see the source code?

Yes. The code is available on github.

Does Web Historian track my web browsing?

No. Web Historian lets you visualize the web browsing history that is already on your computer. To see the data Web Historian uses on Chrome press Command+Y (Mac) or Control+Y (PC) or go to the menu History > Show Full History. All web browsers keep logs of browsing history so that you can use the “Back” button, and other functions like auto-completing website names you type frequently. Web Historian provides you with visualizations of this pre-existing data which begins and remains only on your own computer unless you decide to opt-in to the research project.

Does Web Historian share or send my browsing history data without my knowledge?

No. When you install Web Historian you download a program that runs only on your computer. Even though you use your web browser to see the visualizations these visualizations are not online, they are only on your computer and are generated based on data that is already on your computer (to see this data now on Chrome press Command+Y (Mac) or Control+Y (PC) or go to the menu History > Show Full History). The technology that Web Historian uses to do this is client-side JavaScript. You can use it even when you are offline.

You can opt-in to send your browsing history data to the research project after you install it, view your visualizations, and delete anything you do not want to share. The only time Web Historian transmits your browsing data is when you specifically opt to participate. You can do this once, many times, or never. This is never done automatically. Even after you opt-in you have to specifically choose to send it.

Can I use Web Historian but not participate in the research?

Yes. Participating in the research project is opt-in only. We do encourage users to participate so that it is possible for academics who are trying to understand society and our digital world have access to the same type of information about web browsing that is already available to corporations and governments (see the next question).

Does Web Historian help corporations or governments spy on users’ web browsing?

No. Corporations and governments generally don’t have access to your computer and web browser, which they would need to install Web Historian. However, your employer often does have such access, particularly if they own your computer. Web Historian could be used by an employer who already has access to your computer and web browser, but there are other tools built for this purpose that they might use as well. Similarly, if your computer is seized by law enforcement they could possibly use Web Historian if they gain access to your browser, but they would more likely use other tools built for law enforcement purposes.

In general the browsing history on your computer that Web Historian accesses to create your visualizations is not the best way for corporations or governments to get the information they might want about your web browsing. Tracking cookies, proxy servers, key loggers and other types of malware are all potentially superior sources of data for tracking individuals web use, since, as mentioned above, you can delete your entire browsing history at any time, and sites browsed in “incognito/private” mode are not recorded in your history.

Web Historian does not advance the more sophisticated tracking technologies used by the most powerful actors in society. It does endeavor to give individuals more insight into some of the data they are creating.

Can I use Web Historian to “spy” on the web browsing of other people?

Only if you already have access to use the person’s computer and web browser. As explained in previous questions, Web Historian uses data that is on your computer and doesn’t use the internet at all unless you opt-in to the research project. Web Historian does not give anyone access to browsing history information that they don’t already have access to through the history functions already within the browser (to see the data Web Historian uses on Chrome press Command+Y (Mac) or Control+Y (PC) or go to the menu History > Show Full History).

Web Historian may make it easier for anyone who already has access to a web browser to view and search browsing history information. That is, if someone has access to your browser they have access to your Web history data and can use this tool to visualize it.

The down side of making the data on your computer more useful is that it can be misused. If someone else in your life were to access your browsing history without your knowledge or consent this would often be seen as a betrayal of trust and an invasion of privacy. While this may come from simple curiosity, or the concerns of a parent or partner, this type of behavior is not uncommon in domestic violence situations.

Web Historian can also be used to selectively delete your browsing history either by domain or by page using the Data Table view. Most browsing history tools only allow an all-or-nothing approach to browsing history removal. In certain circumstances removing all history could be seen as hiding something and the selective removal allowed by Web Historian could be used by those being tracked in this way, or just as a preventative measure.

However, if you know or suspect your internet use is being monitored there are ways of tracking that don’t involve browser history at all (proxy servers, key loggers, and all manner of malware). Deleting your browser history entirely or selectively does not eliminate risk of tracking by a determined individual. If you need help please call the 24 hour National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

If I participate in the research, is my data secure?

Yes. If you decide to opt-in and participate in the research your data is sent through an encrypted HTTPS connection to our highly secure server. This is the same technology used by banks. The name and contact information you can opt to provide is never linked to your browsing data. Your data is available to you on the server through use of a personal unique ID with a cryptographic one-way hash anonymization process. When the study concludes your data is stored offline in a network-inaccessible location.

Is any information kept by Web Historian about the content that was deleted in Web Historian?

No. Web Historian does keep a record of how much browsing data was deleted using Web Historian (number of records), but no information about the content itself is included.

If users can remove data, is the research based on it still valuable?

Yes. If you want to know how often people visit websites that might be considered socially unacceptable, or topics people might consider private then collecting data with Web Historian is not a good way to find out! If you are interested in topics people are usually open to discussing this data might be a good choice, and if you want to combine browsing history data with other research methods like surveys or interviews then this is one of the few ways of doing such a project.

If you want to read more about the research approach that underlies the design of Web Historian there is a short paper freely available here.

Why is Web Historian a good idea?

It is good if people have a better understanding of their digital traces, which are increasingly used to shape our online experiences. The records Web Historian visualizes happen to be on your own computer, but corporations and governments may create similar records in other locations as you browse, e.g. the servers of the websites you visit, your Internet Service Provider, your workplace if you use their network, or the NSA. This is the ‘you’ that these organizations see. Having a more concrete understanding of this data enables users to imagine how these records could be interpreted. Having a perception of your trace-self is increasingly useful as such traces (aka “big data”) are used to shape our online experiences.

Also, the research approach enabled by Web Historian is important to advancing the understanding of the complex implications digital technologies have for societies. That is, many difficult-to-address questions involve a relationship between attitudes and behaviors, such as how web use impacts political attitudes or knowledge, how social media use impacts attitudes about friendship or belonging in society, how exposure to persuasive content impacts future browsing, etc. Using behavioral trace data (web browsing data) and combining that with self-reported information (surveys) is a promising way for researchers to tackle some of the most persistent problems in understanding the impacts of technology.

It is difficult to get such data outside of a lab. When it is possible, it is often due to the generosity of technology companies who may provide some data to researchers when they believe it will not damage the interests of the company. Web Historian aims to enable researchers to collect behavioral web data with less corporate influence on their work.

I’m a researcher and I’d like to use Web Historian for my project

Please check out this paper. Web Historian is open-source software available for anyone to use and customize to their needs. Customizing it to your needs will require some programming and server administration. Feel free to contact Ericka Menchen-Trevino directly with questions, and please join our mailing list for relevant updates.