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By Clare O’Gara
Wed | May 27, 2020 | 5:30 AM PDT

When most of us think about our browsing history, our minds—and eyes—go directly to a special bar at the top of our web browsers.

The address bar contains the URL for any website you're currently visiting. It also holds the history of the previous sites you've, well, browsed.

As it turns out, though, browsing history is about more than the address bar and more than even your individual computer.

And a recent bill approved by the United States Senate, the USA Freedom Act, might put the privacy of this data at risk—and make it readily available without a warrant. 

Your browsing history: what kind of data does it contain?

According to privacy advocates at Mozilla, the term "browsing history" expands far beyond your computer screen.

Instead, this is how Mozilla defines browsing history:

"In this context, what 'web browsing history' refers to is data which is stored outside your computer by third parties.

So there's a huge amount of very detailed data about people's browsing behavior sitting out there on various servers on the Internet.

Because this is such sensitive information, in Mozilla's products we try to minimize how much of it is collected with features such as encrypted sync or enhanced tracking protection. However, even so there is still far too much data about user browsing behavior being collected and stored by a variety of parties."

What are the contents of this "very detailed data?" It generally falls into four broad categories:

1.  Telecommunications metadata
2.  Web tracking data
3.  Website data
4.  Browser sync data

Senate bill fails to address browsing history data

The U.S. Senate just reauthorized the USA Freedom Act, which limits bulk collection of data on U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency.

It is not specifically about browsing history; in fact, the bill never discusses it. But according to Mozilla, that's the problem.

"The US Senate voted to renew the USA Freedom Act which authorizes a variety of forms of national surveillance. As has been reported, this renewal does not include an amendment offered by Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Steve Daines that would have explicitly prohibited the warrantless collection of Web browsing history.

If the House reauthorizes USA Freedom without this language, we will be left with this somewhat uncertain situation but one where in practice much of people's activity on the Internet—including activity which they would rather keep secret—may be subject to surveillance without a warrant."

Mozilla, Twitter, Reddit, and others ask for browsing history protection

The House of Representatives still needs to consider the bill before it can  become law, and a collection of seven organizations is asking Congress to reconsider.

Mozilla, Twitter, Reddit, Engine, Reform Government Surveillance, Patreon, and i2Coalition have sent an open letter to House members advocating for the amendment to the bill:

"As leading internet businesses and organizations, we believe privacy and security are essential to our economy, our businesses, and the continued growth of the free and open internet. By clearly reaffirming these protections, Congress can help preserve user trust and facilitate the continued use of the internet as a powerful contributing force for our recovery."

The letter also explains the risk for user privacy:

"Search and browsing history can provide a detailed portrait of our private lives. It may reveal medical conditions, religious beliefs, and personal relationships, and it should be protected by effective legal safeguards.

Some of us do not collect this information; some of us have pressed the courts to adopt a higher standard for this data; all of us believe this information should only be produced with a warrant."

Read the open letter here.

Cybersecurity and privacy podcast 

If you're interested in privacy and cybersecurity law, listen to our podcast episode on this ever-evolving landscape: