Who tracks the trackers that track you online? You can, with Lightbeam.

October 30, 2013

(Photo by L_K_M)

When your browser landed on this article, it didn't just talk to the friendly servers at washingtonpost.com. It also made contact with Chartbeat, a company that helps us understand where else you've been on the Web, and how you're interacting with the site. Your browser also connected to a personalized news applet called Trove, various marketing plug-ins and a social bookmarking service run by a company known as AddThis.

The same is true of the vast majority of sites you'll visit today. Third-party trackers are watching practically everything you do online. Some are innocuous in that they help enhance your Web experience. Others are really annoying — things that you, as a consumer, probably wouldn't want looking over your shoulder.

To help you see which sites are sending your information to third parties, the folks at Mozilla have designed a way to visualize these trackers. It's called Lightbeam. (Unfortunately, the tool works only on Mozilla's Firefox browser). When you launch it, it shows up blank — an empty canvas waiting for your browsing history to turn it into a detailed online portrait of you.


From there, it quickly becomes something of a digital Jackson Pollock. Sites you visit appear as a white circle. Associated plug-ins branch out from that circle as white triangles. Here's what happens when you visit Nordstrom.com, for instance:


(Mozilla)

And here's what it looks like when you've visited more than a few sites:


(Mozilla)

In just the 10 sites that I visited over the course of that session you see above, my browser made contact with over 100 third-party sites, some of which had relationships with each other and were likely passing my data back and forth.

It's an engrossing visualization of a part of the Internet people rarely see. There's a whole ecosystem of trackers that latches on to you in the same way that woodsmoke or the smell of food can give away where you've been in the physical world recently.

"This is like the Wizard of Oz," says Alex Fowler, who leads privacy and public policy for Mozilla. "We're pulling back the curtain here, and this is how the machinery works. This is what the inner workings of the Web really look like."

So what can consumers do with this information? Mozilla hopes they'll become more conscious of the Web's underlying connective tissue. Beyond that, the company doesn't get much into specifics.

But Mozilla has also been active in promoting Firefox's Do Not Track function, which indicates to Web sites when a user doesn't want to be tracked. Presumably Lightbeam and DNT are meant to be complementary: Once users realize the extent to which they're being followed, they'll either switch on DNT (which doesn't, by itself, end the tracking; only the retailer can make that call) or better yet, become an advocate for a national Do-Not-Track policy, whose prospects have been flagging of late.

The likelihood that Mozilla could convert an average consumer into an effective lobbyist this way — and wind up succeeding in what's still an obscure policy fight — seems remote. Still, the organization has a great deal to gain from describing, in easily understood visual terms, a previously abstruse and impenetrable side of the Internet.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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