The VICE Channels

    Now You Can See Which Websites Are Tracking You in Real-Time

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Screenshot from Lightbeam

    Mozilla launched a tool today that shines a light on the mysterious under-workings of the web economy. Its new browser extension, Lightbeam, follows your digital footprint as you surf the web and shows you a real-time visualization of all the websites that are clandestinely tracking and sharing your data. It's like a peek behind the curtain at the Wizard of Oz, Mozilla says.

    Each time an internet user intentionally visits a website they're also connecting to dozens of hidden third-party sites, usually unbeknownst to the user. When I installed the Lightbeam add-on and browsed around eight websites, I found out that 89 third-party applications were also accessing my personal data. 

    Those third-party sites are things like social-networking buttons, embedded scripts for online ads, cookies tracking user activity to create personalized features, widgets, and so on. They aren't necessarily a bad thing, Mozilla points out. Cookies that track our web behavior enable features on the web we've grown accustomed to and even rely on—auto-filling forms, shopping carts, saving passwords and the like. But it also shouldn't be a sneaky and secretive practice to watch people's every move online, grab their data, and turn it around to make a buck. Mozilla's trying to increase transparency—a response to mounting pressure to protect online privacy in the wake of the NSA surveillance revelations.

    I tested out the new tool by browsing a few popular websites. A visit to the New York Times pulled up third-party apps from Chartbeat, a traffic analytics tool; Google Syndication, part of AdSense; DoubleClick, a major ad server; and questionmarket.com, which tracks your activity to create an online profile of you to sell to marketers and advertisers.

    DoubleClick connected the Times-centered grouping to the network that stemmed from my visit to Vice.com, which then connected to me to YouTube and Google Ad Services, which also connected to my visits to Reddit and Twitter. When I hopped over to Netflix, that accessed researchnow.com, which collects online consumer behavior data; adnxs.com, a big ad company; btstatic.com, a "webutation" company; and campanja.com, a search engine marketing service. To name just a few.

    Screenshot of the Lightbeam browser extension. The circles are first-party websites and triangles are third-parties.

    From there, the tool allows super-curious users to drill down deeper and look at the server location of each company that's tracking you, and how many websites in your browsing history it's connected to. If you're not interested in watching in real-time, you can toggle to a list view or clock view, and check back at the end of a day's worth of internet browsing to check out the final report card.

    Lightbeam improves upon an earlier Mozilla privacy add-on called Collusion. That tool never really took off, but Mozilla's hoping the time is ripe now for web users to start taking an interest in their privacy. Mozilla's betting that transparency could tackle one of the biggest problems in today's surveillance state: apathy.

    Most people know they're being tracked, monitored, and analyzed online, but don't really care. Or at least not enough to do much about it. Privacy advocates bet that if web users were able to see exactly who's watching them and what those companies are doing with their growing arsenal of personal information, that would inspire people to take action to take back control of their own data.

    On Lightbeam, you can opt to share your web activity with an open database of information from other people using the extension. Mozilla pointed out that although Lightbeam, too, is accessing and collecting your online activity, it doesn't log IP addresses and the information is collected anonymously.

    Will it catch on? Today's release is still an early version of the tool, so the idea is to improve it and make it more user-friendly over time. The code is open source and available on Github. Hopefully, it will also open up to other browsers besides Firefox. For now, Google Chrome users can use the earlier version of the add-on, Collusion for Chrome.