What is the National Internet Observatory?
The Observatory is a research study. It is a collection of data from the computers, tablets, and phones of people living in the U.S. The Observatory will be used by researchers from all over the world for many years to come.
What is the goal of the National Internet Observatory?
The Observatory aims to help researchers understand how people behave online and how online platforms structure what people see. This will be accomplished through creating a large panel of individuals whose behaviors and interactions with platforms will be recorded.
Who is conducting this research?
The Observatory is developed and maintained by a multidisciplinary team based out of Northeastern University. Researchers and journalists who apply for and are granted access to the Observatory’s data will come from a variety of institutions.
Why should I trust you with my data?
Our team has been conducting studies like this for many years. We have experience collecting survey data and using browser extensions, mobile apps, and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), to collect data. As detailed below, we are committed to protecting the privacy of our participants, and we take concrete steps to make sure that your data is secured. We will never sell your data or share it beyond the researchers who are approved to access the Observatory.
This study has been reviewed and approved by the research ethics committee (known as an Institutional Review Board or IRB) at Northeastern Universities. The research protocol that was reviewed and approved contains strong guarantees to protect the security and privacy of study participants. If we violate the approved research protocol, we would (at a minimum) get in a lot of trouble, and potentially lose our jobs.
When does this study end?
There is no planned end to this study or to how long we will keep the data we collect.
Who is funding this research?
The Observatory is funded by the US National Science Foundation.
Is the National Internet Observatory affiliated with any tech companies?
The Observatory is affiliated with Northeastern University. It is not affiliated with any other companies.
Why should I participate in this research? What's in it for me?
We plan to have two kinds of participants in our study: paid panelists and volunteers. Paid panelists are people who will be recruited by professional survey companies, and these people will be directly paid for their participation. Volunteers are just that: people who want to contribute data to this study without receiving any reward. Although volunteers do not receive any direct benefits, they can feel good about contributing to science and helping us study pressing issues on the Internet.
Are there any risks to participating in this research?
The risk to you, as a participant, is minimal. We are collecting basic demographic information, information about your Internet habits, and copies of some web pages and apps that you use. To the greatest extent possible, information that identifies you will be removed from all collected data.
Any reports or publications based on this research will use only aggregate data and will not identify you or any individual as being affiliated with the Observatory.
It is possible, though very unlikely, that data collected from you could be stolen from us. As detailed below, we implement a comprehensive set of cybersecurity measures to prevent theft of data or data breaches.
Who can I contact if I have questions?
How do I volunteer?
If you would like to volunteer, please visit the Volunteer page.
Who can volunteer?
Anyone who is 18 years of age or older and is living in the United States of America can volunteer for this study.
What is the consent process and why do I need to consent?
We have an informed consent process to explain what we are doing and all of the types of data that we are gathering so you know what to expect. After completing the eConsent form you have a choice to not be part of the study.
What if I don't want to participate?
That's okay! You are free to not participate in this study. Just don't install our software applications and you won’t be enrolled in the Observatory.
What if I want to drop out or withdraw from the study?
Participants are free to leave the study at any time. Participants may leave by ignoring future survey requests, uninstalling the Observatory web browser extension, disabling the Observatory VPN, and/or uninstalling the study app(s). Participants must also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to inform us about your wish to withdraw from the study.
Your email addresses, informed consent status, survey responses, and data associated with you will be retained indefinitely by the Observatory, even if participant withdraws or never enrolls in the study. This data must be retained so that we can identify and distinguish data from participants who are opted-in and opted-out of the study.
Note that any individual-level data that has already been de-identified or aggregated and subsequently shared with external researchers or the public cannot be associated with you and therefore cannot be deleted.
What data are you collecting?
Data will be collected from personal computers via a browser extension and from smartphones via apps and VPNs. In general, these software applications will collect data about what you do online (for example, the websites you visit and apps you use) and what you see online (for example, what content is shown to you by specific online platforms like social networks and search engines). More specific information about the data collected by each of our software applications can be found below.
How will my data be used?
Your data will be used to help researchers and journalists understand how people behave online and how online platforms structure what people see.
Am I anonymous?
Participants in our study are pseudonymous. What that means is that we identify participants by unique numbers. For example, we might know you as “Participant #672uYdzNgQjN”.
Why can't you anonymize my data?
We identify each participant using a unique number because we want to study how people's behavior online varies. In other words, we can't study the behavior of individual people if we don't know who did what in our data.
Furthermore, we may collect data from you that identifies you uniquely. For example, if you Google Search your own name, that query would be collected by our browser extension and become part of our dataset. There is no way for us to remove all such potentially identifying information from the data. This is why we will never release individual-level data from this study; only aggregate information that has been de-identified will ever be discussed or made available publicly.
Will you ever sell my data?
No, data collected during this study will never be sold to anyone.
Will you ever share my data?
We share your data with researchers and journalists. These researchers and journalists must formally apply for access to Observatory data and go through an approval process. Researchers and journalists who are approved to access Observatory data do so on systems owned and managed by the Observatory. Individual-level data about participants is not permitted to be removed from our systems.
How is my data being secured?
We implement a number of mechanisms to make sure that data we collect remains secure. We use industry standard TLS encryption to secure data transfers from our browser extension and mobile apps to our servers. The computers that store collected data are housed in a secure datacenter that is only accessible to staff that hold special key cards. The computers that store collected data are hardened against common cybersecurity threats using industry standard software like firewalls. Access to collected data is limited to Observatory staff and approved researchers, and they may only access data after logging in with strong authentication credentials. Individual-level data will never leave our secure computers; researchers will only ever download aggregated data that has been de-identified. All accesses to our computers are securely logged.
What browsers are compatible with your extension?
Our extension currently supports Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Brave, Opera, and Vivaldi.
What kinds of data are collected by your browser extension?
Our browser extension can collect three types of data from your browser.
1. Activity Data includes a record of the websites you visited, which browser tab was active, playback of media elements like video and audio, and “presence detection” to determine if you are actively using your web browser.
2. Website Snapshots include copies of the HTML displayed to you in you web browser from a selection of websites.
3. Embedded Content includes copies of specific content from websites you visited. For example, embedded content might include banner advertisements, social media posts and widgets, or text containing particular keywords.
Note that the extension may or may not collect each type of data from your browser.
Does the extension collect data from Incognito or Private browser windows?
No, it does not. If you want to browse websites without having the data recorded by our extension, you may do so by browsing within an Incognito or Private window. See here for instructions on how to use Incognito and Private browser windows.
Why does your extension request access to my browsing history?
Our extension collects data about the websites you visit, also known as your “browsing history”. In particular, our extension relies on functionality within your browser called “webNavigation” to collect this data. Your browser shows you a warning when you install our extension because we use this functionality.
Why does your extension request access to http://* and https://* URLs?
Our extension requires access to all tabs containing websites (e.g., http://* and https://* URLs). We use this access for a variety of purposes. Some examples include recording when you interact with audio and video, or monitoring that you are actively using your browser (in other words, did you leave your computer idle).
How do I uninstall your browser extension?
On Chrome, click the extended menu button (the vertical “⋮” button) in the upper-right hand corner of the browser and navigate the menu to More tools > Extensions. The Extensions tab will open up. Find the National Internet Observatory extension in the list and click the Remove button to uninstall our extension.
View the full installation and uninstallation guide here.