Want to know who's spying on you online? There's an app for that

Want to know who's spying on you online? There's an app for that

Summary: Mozilla has released a tool that will allow users of the Firefox browser to know which companies are tracking them online.

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Would you like to know who's watching which websites you visit? Well there's an app for that.

It's standard practice for advertisers to keeps tabs on the sites you frequent using tracking cookies. Tracking cookies are small text files that are downloaded on to your computer that log the websites you browse and, in some case, how you interact with these sites. Advertisers and other companies use these logs to build a profile of your interests, allowing advertisers to sell you products and services you're more likely to buy.

In an attempt to highlight just how many different firms are tracking our browsing habits online Mozilla has produced Lightbeam, an add-on that can be downloaded for the Firefox browser that captures who is watching you.

Every time you visit a site the tool logs every web address that is connecting to your machine, revealing how visiting a single website can result in your computer to connecting to many different web servers. Each of these servers may be controlled by different companies, and send and collect different information — for example, serving up images and adverts on the site or placing tracking cookies on your computer.

mozilla-lightbeam
Each circle shows a web address of a site visited and each triangle a third party site that has connected to your computer. Image: Mozilla

The log is rendered as an infographic that makes it clear which third parties are operating behind the scenes on each website you visit. Users can choose to watch or block individual sites from the tool.

Mozilla's executive director Mark Surman said Lightbeam is about raising public awareness of how their activity is tracked online.

"It really is a stake in the ground designed to start a conversation about privacy," he said.

"If you think about nutrition it's taken years of policy and public education about different types of food for people to be talk about a healthy diet. This is the same thing, this is saying 'Let's know a little bit more about what's happening' then we can get to discussions about what else is being tracked, to building tools to let you protect yourself, to education campaigns about how we want to protect about ourselves."

Information collected by Lightbeam can be uploaded to an online database that aggregates anonymised data about third party tracking across different sites.

"We need people to know how the web works and one element of that is privacy,"Surman said.

"We're figuring out a significant part of how humans interact with each other and that will last for hundreds of years. As we figure that out there are different forces in play, the normal forces of creativity, commerce and government. It's part of society figuring out what the web should be and our role is to stand up for those core values that the web was built on, which includes transparency."

Lightbeam is the next version of an earlier Firefox add-on called Collusion, which also helped web users monitor online tracking.

Mozilla pointed out that tracking cookies are only one of a number of methods that can be used for tracking web users online. Another common approach is for the website you are visiting choosing to share data on who is visiting the site with third parties.

Mozilla said that some companies are now using browser fingerprinting, where a user is tracked via the unique way their web browser is set up, for instance in the font sizes selected or the mix of add-ons installed.

Firefox also allows users to select a "Do not track" option, which sends a message to web servers not to place tracking cookies on a user's computer, however it is up to third parties to comply with these wishes. About 18 per cent of Firefox users in the UK and US use the "Do not track" option.

Further reading

Topics: Software, Web development

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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27 comments
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  • Thanks.

    I did a quick search for Lightbeam and Collusion in the Search ZDNet box and this is the only article that got found. Are my favorite tech site bloggers not keeping me up to date on tools like this?
    Bill4
    • Gizmo

      Gizmo picked up on it.
      DKFlorida
  • Mozilla LightBean AddOn Download page

    https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/lightbeam/
    KillerDAN
  • better late than never...

    But that’s not what I really want to know anymore, I've had tools for this for a while, I know who the core marketing spies are... I want to know about the rest... you know ... the internal corporate spies and the alphabet spies (NSA, FBI, CIA, KGB, Anon, XYZ, ...). Tell me about all the not normal processes and communications.
    greywolf7
    • That would be nice, but virtually impossible.

      Since the NSA, FBI, CIA, etc. are sniffing Internet backbones at the network packet level, not at the application (browser, email, etc.), or OS levels. In other words, there is no way for your computer to know its network traffic was sniffed.
      anothercanuck
  • Different from Abine's 'Do Not Track Me'?

    I've been using the DNTMe extension on my Firefox (and Safari) for some time now and it seems to work just swell. Aside from the pretty graphics, is there anything different that Lightbeam does/finds/stops?
    MleB
  • Running NoScript w/ DNT exposed many of these sites to me, too.

    I've been running NoScript with DNT for a couple years now and it's been an eye-opener to the number of services that make up a site on the Internet, including ZDnet.

    I think the biggest offense is how many of these tracking sites need to be enabled to make a site like ZDnet actually work.
    joetron2030
    • Track me, please!

      Correct you are, joe!
      ZDNET does not work (hangs on posting a message or voting on one) if DNT is active.
      On both Chrome and IE9.
      Not the only one.
      VONS for example, won't even display items if DNT is active.
      radu.m
    • This is a free site

      The sysadminds and the authors must be paid, right?
      And you thought that their salaries are coming from where?
      And you are genuanly surprised that the site has oh so many ad services?
      Oh, come on, let us all stop pretending to be innocent kids. Real life is ugly.
      ForeverSPb
    • NoScript (Firefox) and NotScript(Chrome)

      Yes, the number can (& frequently is, alas!) astounding. Maybe even after you come to understand the I'net well... I guess the biggest irritant is figuring out _Which_ are really needed, and which are g-r- trackers (ho-hum to me), and which +might+ prove harmful.

      There *IS* a plus side to g-o trackers, though, you only get bothered by things you might actually _want_ to know about. Mostly. (And if you see that as 'giving the Devil his due', OK, but it _IS_ true, and a positive.

      RGH.
      Robert9693
    • likewise, also curious of addon interactions

      I also use NoScript and DNT, with HTTPS Everywhere thrown in. I'm curious if this visualization tool will demonstrate clearly the various results of enabling and disabling the former add-ons. I'll have to try it out, so thanks for the useful news.

      It's be a before & after snapshot:
      This is your browser. This is your browser playing nicely with others on the Internet.
      Solenoid
  • Lightbeam

    IF THIS IS SUCH A GREAT PROGRAM THEN WHY IS THE ONLY BROWSER OFFERING THIS TOOL OR THEIR OWN TOOL THAT DOES THIS FOR YOU. SOUNDS AS IF IE AND CHROME WANT TO KEEP SECRET WHAT THEY AND OTHER VENDORS ARE TRACKING ABOUT YOUR BROWSING IS. DOES ANYONE KNOW A TOOL THAT WORKS FOR ALL BROWSERS AS THIS TRACKING HAS TO BE SOMEWHERE WITHIN YOUR OPERATING SYSTEM FILES?
    REX MCCAMY
    • that tool would be...

      applying your common sense to your browsing habits.
      BitBanger_USA
      • that tool would be ..................

        clearing your cookie cache when you're done browsing the internet. Firefox will do that automatically (if you set it up) when you close the browser.
        goldenpirate@...
    • calm down

      Cookies are just text files that sit in their designated directories.
      Web services are just dressed up http requests and responses.

      Anyone with some time on thier hands and some knowledge can write those tools.

      The fact that MS and Google did not write those tools only tells us that they desided to spend their time on different projects.
      There are third party tools out there if you need them.
      There is really no reason to freak out.

      If you do not like poeple looking at you on the street, stay home. If you are so afraid of being tracked, do not browse.
      ForeverSPb
    • No need to shout!

      ;) perhaps you need to remove the gum from your caps-lock
      jsargent
  • spy protection

    how is this different or better than Disconnect?
    nedjinski
  • Privacy?

    If you're really worried about privacy and anonymity, then don't use a computer that's hooked to the interwebz. 'They' know how to find you, and if you're doing some online crimestuff, have no fear about the capacity of law enforcement, working with ISP's, to track you like an enemy aircraft on radar, if they deem it necessary to do so. It's not just the US, either. It's the INTER(national)NET(work), and this is the Information Age. Spy, spy away, I say. The hackers work for the antivirus companies.
    walkerbert@...
  • ZDNet Tracking

    I installed this Firefox extension after reading about it on another site. After installation, I checked and there was no tracking yet. I went to ZDNet but didn't click on any ZDNet link. I checked Lightbeam and was told that I was being tracked by 13 different entities.

    I use the Mac OS X "Cookie" app that allows me to permanently maintain about 20 cookies. Others (including all tracking cookies) are accepted but are deleted every 10 minutes while I'm browsing. So go for it ZDNet.
    noibs-0cf43
  • Compared to...

    I have been using DoNotTrackMe in Chrome for some time now. This site alone has 9 companies tracking data.

    DoNotTrackMe recommends Omniture to remain enabled, i am guessing that I cant post without it enabled.

    Is lightbeam better or about the same or?
    CJEdwards