The DOBBS project aims to study Internet browsing habits by following user activity during a session.

Studying Internet Browsing Behaviour in a Way that Preserves Privacy

Understanding how people browse the Internet, whatever device they use, is a valuable exercise for professionals in a number of fields. Researchers can use the data to improve the algorithms which underpin the functioning of Internet browsers, while app developers and website designers can use the information to optimise their product design. In order to compile a database which everyone can consult, and which is constantly updated on a voluntary basis by Internet users, the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI), based at the National University of Ireland in Galway, has developed a small add-on to web browsers. The software is designed to gather information on users’ browsing habits in several different respects.

Studying Internet user behaviour

The DOBBS (DERI Online Browsing Behaviour Study) project pulls various types of information into its database. The browser add-on keeps track of how often, and for how long, a user visits a website, how s/he browses between pages – by click, link or tab, how many windows are opened per session, and how much time a user leaves windows open without using them. When tested on a small panel of users, the project revealed for example that the test-users had two windows open during a session 78% of the time, that they kept four open concurrently for 40% of the time, and had eight windows open simultaneously for as much as 18% of the time. This tracking approach can however only provide researchers with useful data if a sufficiently large number of people agree to use the add-on, which means that a willingness to install and use the software needs to spread from person to person.

Ensuring information security

This type of project of course raises the issue of data confidentiality and information security. The project’s originators have taken care to ensure that their add-on neither saves nor transfers any type of personal data such as email or IP addresses. Sensitive data, such as the actual URLs a user visits, are encrypted before being sent to the DOBBS project server. As a failsafe, the user can always turn the system off manually, de-activating the add-on as and when s/he wishes and continuing to browse the Internet without DOBBS recording his/her activity.



By Guillaume Parodi