A new piece of software released this week by browser-maker Mozilla does something unique: it provides a real-time visualization of who is tracking your movements online.
The software is called “Collusion,” developed last year by Mozilla programmer Atul Varma, who became inspired to code the program after reading extensively about online privacy matters. It plugs into the Firefox browser and watches as websites and ad networks drop “cookies” into the browser during normal surfing.
“Each dot in the graph represents a website,” Alex Fowler, the global privacy lead at Mozilla, explained to Raw Story. “As you browse, some web sites cause requests to other third-party web sites (as part of the page you’re viewing). When cookies are sent to these third-party web sites, Collusion puts them both on the graph and draws a line between them. As you visit more and more sites, some of the third parties receive cookies from a wide range of sites. Some web sites also cause Firefox to send cookies to many third parties. These two situations will show up in Collusion as big dots with lots of lines.”
While it doesn’t sound all that creepy, just wait until you see your own graph. A brief test-run by Raw Story revealed that after clicking a number of popular websites — like Comedy Central, Netflix, Hulu, the Conan O’Brien show, Amazon, The New York Times and others — more than three dozen organizations were tracking our movements across multiple websites. That data is typically used in behavior analysis by advertisers, but the program’s author explains that its all a bit more revealing than many people know, and many times the information being gathered can be used to personally identify individual users.
“Mozilla’s goal is to raise awareness of users about one part of their online experience,” Fowler explained. “With Collusion, we aim to bring transparency to the opaque set of players users interact with online and to enable users to make informed choices about the websites they visit and the information that parties can access about them.”
The software couldn’t come at a better time, either: with the White House announcing support for an online privacy bill of rights, and major Internet advertisers agreeing to self-regulate how they collect information on users, Collusion could help key players in Washington understand exactly why consumer protections are needed.
“Policy makers have been working on this issue for some time now, so for many of the regulatory veterans to privacy Collusion won’t be a surprise,” Fowler said. “The key thing is that experts understand how cookies work and what they’re used for online. The average users still struggle to make sense of them. In its first incarnation, Collusion is a great tool for building awareness. We don’t expect a browser tool like this will do much in the way of generating new laws or regulatory actions.”