Privacy

Mozilla's Big Plans for Tracking Who Tracks You Online


Mozilla's Big Plans for Tracking Who Tracks You Online

Photograph by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

For the most part, the ad networks and analytics companies and other online trackers that watch as you plod across the Internet are silent sentinels. Sure, they get debated on Capitol Hill and in magazine articles, but it’s pretty easy to forget about them. They’re distant, abstract, like the Greek debt crisis or loose nukes in Russia. We know we should care, but who has the time?

A new add-on from Mozilla makes them a whole lot more tangible. The tool, ominously called Collusion, is a free download for users of the Firefox browser. When you have it on, every time you visit a Web page, it records all the third-party trackers that glom onto you. There’s no great technical wizardry involved—anyone who knows how to navigate the developer settings on her browser can see the same data—but Collusion visualizes the information in a simple, alluring schematic. It’s a spider web of all the services that snare you online.

I booted up Collusion the other day and immediately headed to the Huffington Post to get a sense of how it works. Here’s the result:

10:30

The circle in the middle represents HuffPo. The other 12 circles are all trackers of one kind or another—ad networks (DoubleClick, for example) as well as social media companies (Facebook)—that load whenever you visit HuffPo. If you visit another site that uses some of the same networks, the tracker continues to follow you. Collusion charts all these connections.

After about an hour of Web surfing, here’s what my spider-web diagram looked like:

And here it is after a full day:

That day, the 31 different sites I visited allowed 79 different trackers to watch me. That’s not at all atypical. In a 36-hour period, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic encountered 105 trackers.

OK, great. You can see these trackers a little better thanks to Collusion. So what? What do you do about it?

I spoke to Ryan Merkley, the chief operating officer of the Mozilla Foundation, who says the current version of Collusion is “experimental” and that Mozilla has big plans—and $300,000 from the Ford Foundation—to expand it. “We want to build more functionality into it,” he says, “so people know what the trackers are doing, where they’re from, and how they’re talking to one another. And we want to give people the ability to turn that on or off.” They also want to make it possible for Collusion users to share their data voluntarily and anonymously with journalists and academics, so the tracker ecosystem can be studied.

In the best-case scenario, Collusion could become a kind of fine-grained control panel for our data. Right now, most online privacy decisions are binary: Submit to Google’s cookie policy or opt out entirely. Use Facebook and risk the unintentional overshare, or delete your account. “We’re not saying all tracking is bad and no one should ever allow a tracker,” says Merkley. “We’re saying people should be able to make choices as to how they’re tracked at a level that’s not all-in or all-out. We don’t have good options for that yet, but Collusion was a way to start that conversation.”

Sheridan_190
Sheridan is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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