Visually See How You Are Being Tracked Online!

By now, you should be pretty clear that when you visit websites online, in most cases, you’re not always alone. Someone is always watching you. Seeing how you behave on that website. What you click on. What you search for. What websites you were visiting prior to coming here and so on and so on. Essentially, there’s enough data here to profile you. This may sound scary and it really is but as the web evolves, this is something that people need to deal with. Cutting off Internet access is not really possible although I’m sure many have tried. We are so connected these days to the Internet that the majority of our lives actually depend on it! There are obviously many benefits to the Internet but with that also comes a lot of dark and nasty things that most users don’t really know about. The funny thing is, people in the background are getting rich off of it and you’re actually helping them without even knowing it! There are many ways to combat companies that are trying to track you but I recently stumbled upon yet another browser utility that helps users determine just who it is that are tracking their activities across the web. This utility is promoted by Firefox themselves and is called Collusion.

How it Works

The Collusion Firefox add-on works by give you a graphical view of which tracking companies are associated within a website that you visit. For example, if you go to site 1, that site may have 3 different advertising companies tracking you. Next you go to site 2 and here, it has 4 different companies tracking you with 2 of them being the same as in site 1. Collusion simply allows you to quickly see which tracking companies are tracking you across your journey through the web and how everything relates to one another. As you visit more and more websites, the more you are being tracked by different tracking solutions. Browse enough and some companies will have a load of data on you as they also implement the same tracking solution across multiple websites! Therefore, they also get some insight into your online behavior and with enough of that data, they can generate a more accurate profile of you in hopes to target advertisements that would have a higher click-rate or who knows what else.

Collusion Graph

Here is a brief video from Mozilla’s CEO, Gary Kovac, talking about this utility at a TED conference:

Using Collusion in Firefox

You can download the Collusion add-on for Firefox here.

Using Collusion is simple. Just install it and browse the web like you normally do. After a few minutes/hours or so, click on the Collusion button in Firefox and you’ll be presented with the graph detailing how you were being tracked. In order to get the most accurate data possible, I had to disable any Firefox add-on’s that blocked either advertisements or other forms of script from loading in my Firefox browser. After browsing to a couple of major sites such as CNN, New York Times and MSNBC, the results weren’t looking too good as you can see below. Only having browsed to so little sites, the Collusion graphical map already looked poluted. Imagine after having spending a couple of hours of browsing!

Sample Collusion Data

Since it can get confusing to see what belongs to what, you can interact with the bubbles representing the sites you went to and the tracking companies as well. When you click on a website you visited, it will darken out the unrelated data but illuminate the tracking companies being deployed on that site. If you hover your mouse over a selected tracker, it will illuminate all the websites that it also identifies with.

Website HightlightTracker Highlight

Once you have enough data (which doesn’t take long), Collusion will be a total mess because keeping track of what belongs to what will be just mind boggling. The scary thing about some trackers is that while a site may link to just that one tracker, that tracker itself may also be linked out to many others and so forth and so forth. Always keep this in mind.

Blocking Access to Trackers

Collusion does a cool job of showing you just how everything is connected to each other via trackers. However, it really doesn’t do anything to stop these trackers from well, keeping track of you! For that, there are numerous other browser add-on’s that aim to do the job. The awesome part about using Collusion, at least how I look at it, is that it can easily be used as a measuring tool to see just how well a certain blocker does its job. For this quick experiment, I will just be testing the Firefox add-on of Ghostery, NoScript and TrackBlocker. In my test, I will just go ahead and turn on each add-on and visit back my blog here. Of course, I’m not proud that my own blog incorporates so many trackers so I’ll use my own site as a poor man’s benchmark.

Here is how my blog looks in Collusion by default without any blockers installed. You can clearly see the trackers that have been implemented by looking at the list on the left as well:

Default

Here are the results after enabling Ghostery. As you can see, it didn’t really do that good of a job. It blocked some but many still made its way through.

Ghostery Enabled

Here is how it looks like with NoScript enabled set to block my blog by default. Note how it blocks a majority of the trackers:

NoScript

The last blocker I will try is a Firefox add-on advertised by Firefox on their Collusion homepage called TrackerBlock, which can be downloaded here. Notice also how it didn’t do that good of a job as well when blocking the trackers on my blog, similar to Ghostery.

Trackerblock

Moving Forward

As you can see, NoScript does an excellent job at actually preventing unwanted trackers from gathering your data online. As always though, there are some legitimate reasons why you would want to be tracked. Also, not every website that collects some form of data from you are considered evil or bad. I’m not just saying this because I myself deploy some of these tracking mechanisms. For example, I use Sitemeter as a way to find out how visitors actually reach my blog. I use sharing utilities such as a sharing bar with social services because I want to give users a easy way to share my articles in hopes to reach a bigger audience. Although I personally don’t care much for these services, I understand that it can be a major convenience to some. The good news with NoScript or other third party blockers is that you can personally configure which sites to whitelist to allow some or all of the trackers and block all the other sites you are not familiar with. For me personally, I usually whitelist sites that are on my favorites list and block all others that I rarely visit or have not too much trust in.

It’s clear to see that tracking mechanisms are not going to go away any time soon. There’s just too much money involved in the business. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to live by their rules. Utilities such as Firefox’s Collusion allows just about anyone to actually see how it is that they are being tracked while they go about their business online. If you’re really paranoid though, you better start learning how to use NoScript! While its true that many will argue that if you have nothing to hide, then why care about being tracked? That’s not a question that can be easily answered but for those who don’t like the direction websites are moving to, they can definitely do something about that right now.

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