Ever wondered exactly who is tracking you online? Any semi-pro to full-pro web surfer knows that online privacy these days is under serious threat from an invisible world of high and secret forces. But without some technical know-how, it is a tricky deal to find who or what is exactly following your every movement on the internet. Thanks to the folks from the Mozilla Foundation, the ‘deal’ has become a lot simpler.
The smart folks who brought us Firefox, the free and open source web browser have just released the beta version of Collusion – an online plugin that provides a simple and precise graphical picture of who is keeping tabs on you as you are visiting sites around the web. After playing with it for a couple of days now, I can tell you that it is pretty nifty. The nodes which represent websites are shown as little circles and are color coded to signify their purpose in the tree. Gray circles are the websites you are visiting on purpose and red circles are the third-party tracker sites that are collecting data as you visit the grey ones.
When you visit a website, it drops a cookie – a file that stores small amount of data relevant to that website – in your computer. When you go to other websites, they can drop cookies of their own and, as you probably figured it out by now, by looking at these cookies a software program can quickly find out all the websites you have browsed and, based on the data stored in those cookies, learn a lot more about your online activities. This is a simple version of the working model for companies that make money by tracking you and selling that information to the highest bidder.
Say I am visiting the New York Times. Collusion shows that Facebook gets instantly notified that I just visited NYT (triggered by the ‘Like’ button in NYT). Three other services called Checkm8.com, imrworldwide.com and doubleclick.net are also notified simultaneously and these guys show up in red colored circles. Now, I move to CNN.com and these three services along with four more tracking companies are triggered and now they all know that I had just visited NYT and CNN and what links I clicked in each website. As I visit more websites – Amazon, BestBuy, Netflix and so on – a number of third-party tracking websites pop up in Collusion, like viruses multiplying inside a petri dish under a microscope, and gather all they could find from the cookies in my computer. Once sufficient data is collected they mine it and identify patterns and then opportunities for targeted ads. For instance, if I had added a book to my Amazon cart, but did not buy it, soon a new discount advertisement may show up for that specific book while I’m browsing Lifehacker.com.
With Collusion installed, you will be able to quickly and very clearly see all these background entities that hide behind your computer screens (figuratively speaking) and watch and monetize all your internet activities. Mozilla has set up a nice demo page here for the skeptical to test-drive Collusion before installing. Give it a try. You’d be crazy not to.
Collusion, like all Firefox products, is free and can be downloaded here as a Firefox plugin.
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