November 11, 2013 No Comments-
Mozilla, the creator of the popular web browser Firefox, is already well known among computer professionals as a champion of users’ digital freedoms. Its status was cemented when the charitable foundation installed a “Do Not Track” option in its software, allowing users to prevent advertisers from following them across the internet.
That was just the first step, however. Now their anti-tracking initiative has gone even further with the creation of a free add-on called Lightbeam. Downloadable as an extension to the Firefox web browser, Lightbeam creates a visual graphic of the information your computer leaves around the web.
Whether websites are asking your computer to download identifying information, or third-party websites are loading content onto your computer without you knowing, Lightbeam will capture it all of these digital “transactions” and display it in an attractive graphical form.
But why is Mozilla doing this – why is tracking the trackers important?
What are cookies, third-party websites, and why is this important?
Lightbeam isn’t an anti-malware tool, nor will it prevent your computer from being infected with viruses or other digital nasties. For that, you’ll need a dedicated tool like the Norman Security Suite. No, Lightbeam simply shines a light on the way your computer interacts with websites on the internet.
What goes on behind the scenes when you load a website is actually quite surprising. Most websites you visit are actually – as you are on the page – sharing your data with many other websites and companies, none of which you know about.
As you browse, Lightbeam visualises the full depth of these relationships, including the parts that are not transparent to most of us humble internet users.
For example, imagine you went to a website and were looking at buying some shoes. You then head to another site and – guess what – the shoes you were looking at before are now inside an advertisement on that new website. You move on and, a few hours later, another website has an advertisement for the same pairs of foot-warmers. Does this sound familiar?
It’s a popular market technique that has arisen over the last few years, and it happens because an external company – one that controls an advertising network – has noticed that you’ve looked at a pair of shoes on one websites, and wants to encourage you to buy them by displaying advertisements for them across other websites. It’s like being followed by the world’s most persistent salesman.
Being sold to isn’t necessarily a bad thing – maybe you really did want those shows? But it is important we know what is going on behind the scenes. Mozilla is trying to ensure that “everyone has the tools to make their own decisions about their online privacy and who collects data on them. We are providing a valuable (and open) community research platform that aims to raise awareness, promote analysis and, ultimately, affect policy change in the areas of tracking and privacy.”
We think any efforts to raise awareness about how the internet works are great – after all, it’s what we try to do on this blog. Why not try Lightbeam and take a peak at who is following you around the internet? You’ll likely be surprised by how many cookies are actually following your movements.
As an example, do you know the “Tweet” and “Facebook Like” buttons? They’re sending information to those companies concerning what pages you’re visiting, even if you don’t click them.
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