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How to Track What Congress Is Doing on the Internet

A new tool aims to monitor what government workers look at online.

Louise Matsakis

Louise Matsakis

Image: Shutterstock Remix by Jason Koebler

There's now a way to track what government employees, including elected officials, are doing online during working hours.

A new plugin created by a software engineer in North Carolina lets website administrators monitor when someone accesses their site from an IP address associated with the federal government. It was created in part to protest a piece of legislation the president signed earlier this year.

In April, President Trump signed a measure allowing internet service providers (ISPs) to sell sensitive information about your online habits without needing your consent, rolling back Obama-era regulations intended to stop that very thing from happening.

Corporations like Verizon and AT&T hated the regulations (and spent a boatload lobbying against them), because they made it difficult to monetize the mountain of customer data they have the ability to collect.

Consumers, on the other hand, were outraged, and wondered what could be done to get back at the lawmakers who voted in favor of the measure. One appealing suggestion was to buy and release their browsing history, then release it to the public.

Almost immediately, a handful of GoFundMe pages dedicated to raising money for the cause popped up. While the campaigns are well-intentioned, what their creators don't realize is that what they want to do is illegal. The Telecommunications Act prohibits sharing (or selling) customer information that is "individually identifiable," except under special circumstances.

In other words, there's no database where you can purchase your Congressman's online porn habits and there likely won't be anytime soon, even with the data-collection regulations dismantled.

But a new tool created by Matt Feld, the founder of several nonprofits including Speak Together, could help the public get a sense of what elected officials are up to online.

Feld, a software engineer working in North Carolina, created Speak Together to share "technical projects that could be used to reduce the opaqueness between government and people," he told Motherboard over the phone. "It was born out of just me trying to get involved and finding the process to be confusing."

The tool lets website administrators track whether members of Congress, the Senate, White House staff, or Federal Communications Commission (FCC) staff are looking at their site.

If you use Feld's plug-in, you'll be able to see whether someone inside government is reading your blog. You won't be able to tell if President Trump viewed a web page, but you will be able to see that it was someone using an IP address associated with the White House.

The tool works similarly to existing projects like CongressEdits, an automated Twitter account that tweets whenever a Wikipedia page is edited from IP addresses associated with Congress.

Feld's tool also works kind of like Congress browsing, a project that monitors when someone inside the Senate, House of Representatives, or the White House accesses GovTrack, a site that tracks legislation being debated in Congress.

Feld's project differs in several important ways from both CongressEdits and Govtrack's tool, though. For one, when it's finished, (Feld says the project is in its final stages) anyone will be able to use it. Feld also plans to organize all the data from the project in one central place, providing a more complete picture of what elected officials are doing on the internet.

Feld created the tool to get a window into what elected officials are doing during working hours online, but also as a kind of protest against the repeal of the FCC's internet privacy regulations.

If, for example, a dozen major news organizations were to add the plug-in to their sites, Feld would be able to release data showing what kinds of stories people in government were reading.

What also makes Speak Together's tool different is that it's going to have the capability (according to Feld) to differentiate from people using private Wi-Fi and those using public hotspots. Without the feature, it won't be possible to tell whether a federal employee read your website, or merely a guest using a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

Feld created the tool to get a window into what elected officials are doing during working hours online, but also as a kind of protest against the repeal of the FCC's internet privacy regulations.

"The real [reason I made the tool] is to get the internet browsing law repealed," Feld said.

If you're interested in using Speak Together's tool on your site, you can reach out to Feld via Speak Together's site, or sign up on the tool's website. He says he plans to offer the JavaScript plug-in soon, for free.