New Mozilla Firefox Plugin shows which sites are tracking you and why

Two days ago on October 23rd, the Mozilla Foundation released an add-on that provides interactive insights into the third party sites that are tracking and using your private data.

Mozilla Software Developer, Atul Varma (@toolness), first got the idea about visualizing browser data in the summer of 2011 after he read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser.

Parsier’s book shows how dot.com giants like Google and Facebook are culling our personal data and profiting from it.

These shocking facts imbued Varma with a desire to see how third-party sites were connected so he started implementing an experimental Firefox plugin called Collusion to help the world understand how data tracking works.  He candidly describes his light bulb moment on his blog.

Now two years later, Collusion has evolved into what the Mozilla Foundation is calling Lightbeam.

How it Works

From the moment you enable the plugin and begin surfing the web, Lightbeam starts marshaling real-time facts about all the third-parties running on the sites you visit.  The more sites you browse the more connections Lightbeam makes between trackers.

The result is a beautifully byzantine graph that displays active third-parties tagging your data.

Let’s look at how this works on my Windows 8 box:

First, we need to get the Lightbeam plugin.

Download Lightbeam Firefox Addon

The install completes in seconds and doesn’t require any browser restarts.

When the add-on finishes up, you’ll notice a new icon in the  bottom right corner of your browser.  When you mouseover the Lightbeam logo you’ll see an option to Show Lightbeam.

Before you click it, just start surfing the web so you can give Lightbeam some data to display.

As you blithely browse the internet, Lightbeam silently gathers cookie and tracking data in the background.

For my demonstration below, I typed in cnn.com and opened the Lightbeam console.

Lightbeam Add-on

Man was I aghast!

Look at this – I only visited three sites yet I’ve already unwittingly connected to 28 third party sites.

All those little triangles in the graph below are third parties and the purple lines connecting them are cookies.

If you click a visited site in the graph you’ll see the URLs in the right pane that lists all the third-parties connected to that site.  The results will undoubtedly generate an effusion of emotion because you’ll instantly discover dozens of third-parties that you probably never heard of.

For example, see that site in the right pane named krxd.net?  (It’s is the 9th site from the top).

Who the heck is krxd.net and what is it doing with my data?

Lightbeam Firefox Graph

The URL doesn’t resolve to anything

What is krxd.net?

A quick Google search reveals some disheartening information…

Google krxd.net

The answer posted by someone named Katsush suggests that krxd.net is a tracking site.

Graaahhh!  I should have known…

Who is Krux Datamangement Services?

Anyway, the point of this digression is to show you that Lightbeam is a great tool to chase down third-party offenders.

Back in the Lightbeam tab, if you click the Clock in the left Visualization pane, you’ll see a dazzling dial displaying all the third-parties gathered by the hour.

You can use your mouse wheel to zoom in and out of the clock and click and drag around to see the big picture.

Firefox Lightbeam Clock

I particularly like the visualization List which presents a easy to read table of all the third party sites.  Just click a row to open details.

Windows 8 Lightbeam Tracker List

The Terrifying Bottom Line

The first time you use Lightbeam you might be appalled because Google is undoubted connected to everything.  

The scary thing is that most people assume they are relatively safe on the web especially if they’re privacy geeks using add-ons such as Ghostery, and Ad-block; however, even these tools can’t protect you from leaking your personal data.

The bottom line is that your personal information is YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION and you have a right to see who has access to it.  You have a right to know which vendors are discretely making money off you and Lightbeam illuminates the truth in an remarkable lucid way.  You can clearly see whose watching you.

Lightbeam is a beautiful add-on that is both entertaining and informative.  I highly suggest you install it immediately and I tip my hat to Mozilla and specifically, Varma, for creating such a useful plug-in.

What do you think of the Lightbeam visual interface?  Were you surprised by what you saw?  Please let me know in the comments below.

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