(Ultra)LightBeam: No Faith in Privacy

Lightbeam is a Firefox extension that allows users to monitor which first and third party websites they interact with while surfing the web. It was created through collaboration between Mozilla and the Social + Interactive Media (SIM) Centre at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. It visualizes the data in two ways (Graph and List) so that the user can observe the connections between the sites they visit and third party sites active on those pages.

Today, I installed LightBeam on my Firefox browser and let it run in the background while I surfed the web for 20 minutes. Then I opened the add-on and observed my results. Here is a video of me browsing the results:

What I like about LightBeam is the tabbed panel (on the righthand side) that breaks down each connection (shows the server location, date, and lists connected websites), displays a short help section (explains features for each visualization option) and a general information tab that explains to the user (without confusing jargon) how the extension works as well as the privacy policy and data protection.

I first browsed through the Indigo online store and looked at my results right away (since I was curious). I had already interacted with 26 third party websites, Including Visa and Masterpass (a digital wallet provided by MasterCard). After 20 minutes, I had visited nine websites and connected with 169 third party websites. In total, I had interacted with 178 sites. Here are screenshots of my results (circles are first party websites and triangles are third party websites):

Graph Visualization
List Visualization

I was aware of cookies and had a general idea of how third party sites worked, but I wasn’t aware of how much internet was overflowing with them. Most of the third party websites that I had established connections to had names that I’ve never heard of. Most of them were very obscure — ggpht.com and gssprt.jp sound like malware waiting to happen. I used Whois Lookup and Cookiepedia to look up some of the websites I didn’t recognize. Some were targeted advertising service providers and others were part of Google servers. No matter where you go on the internet, data is being collected about you and your online habits and I find it eerie to say the least. When privacy online is next to non-existent for the common web surfer, it’s important to be aware of who is collecting your data and why.