December 14, 2015


Frequently Asked Questions

How does Web Historian make money?

It doesn’t. Web Historian is part of an academic project by Ericka Menchen-Trevino at American University in Washington D.C.

How does Web Historian work?

You can use Web Historian Educational edition if you use Chrome, and the Community Edition for research participation is available in Chrome, and Firefox and as a stand-alone app for Mac and Windows that can include Safari data. For Educational edition users, Chrome can easily import browsing history from Firefox or IE, just follow these steps.

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. 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 for the Community Edition or for the Educational Edition.

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 historical data that Web Historian uses.

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!

Can I see the source code?

Yes. The code is available for the educational edition and the community edition 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.

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.

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 digital trace 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 in the educaitonal edition, and in the community edition it only does so if you opt-in to the research project after reviewing your data. 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 downside 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, keyloggers, and all manner of malware). Deleting your browser history entirely or selectively does not eliminate the 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).

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.