Shining a Light on Third-Party Tracking

I recently downloaded the LightBeam app, and I have to say that it was, in fact, very enlightening. I was shocked at how many websites I had unintentionally interacted with in such a short amount of browsing time — many of which I’d never even heard of. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, allow me to briefly explain how it works. LightBeam is an app that you can install on Firefox that provides you with a visualization of your web activity; it shows you graph (or a list) of all the websites that you’ve visited. What’s interesting about it, though, is that it also shows you all the website that you unknowingly interacted with. These are called “third party websites”. These third-party trackers are hidden below the surface of the websites you intentionally visit, and they use cookies to build a picture of your online activity and behaviour. Remember that old concept of privacy? Yeah, well, this certainly makes it feel like a thing of the past.

Before we get into the privacy issue, I want to share my recent experience LightBeam. After I downloaded the app, I proceeded to browse the internet for about twenty minutes, maybe half an hour at the most. The first website I visited was msn.com, which is the default homepage when I open a new tab. I read a few stories, and then I moved on to Facebook. I scrolled down until I found a story that interested me, and then I clicked on the link, which brought me to a blog on Hootsuite about managing social media sites like Instagram. After reading the article, I clicked on a link to an Ow.ly blog entry, and then another one to a cool infographic about the science of Instagram branding on kissmetrics.com. After that, I tried to go to the Medium site, but entered medium.ca, which brought to a website about psychics. I thought about browsing the site anyways, but decided against. Finally, I got to my intended destination at medium.com and read a story about Barstool Sports. I wasn’t familiar with the company, so I looked it up on Google, which took me to barstoolsports.com to get some more information. The website was poorly designed and I quickly decided I wasn’t interested in that particular company, so I closed the tab. And then… I opened the LightBeam app. From the 9 websites that I intentionally visited, I was connected with 213 third party websites.

This is a screenshot of my website activity. The bright white circles are the websites that I visited.
Another screenshot. The bright white triangles are all of the third-party trackers that I unknowingly interacted with.

TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTEEN! This is truly shocking, and quite frankly, a little bit scary. What’s even scarier, is that the number of third-party websites kept growing as long as I had the browser open, even when I wasn’t actively “surfing the web”. I noticed that several of the third-party trackers were Google domains: googleanalytics.com, googleadservices.com, googletagservices.com, googletagmanager.com, and the list goes on. There were other names I recognized, like Youtube, Yahoo, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. Most of the names, however, I didn’t recognize at all.

A screenshot showing several of Google’s third-party trackers, among others.
More trackers.

This really got me thinking: what, and how much, information about me do these companies now have? Where is it stored? What are they going to do with it?

Now, don’t get me wrong — I know that cookies and other user data can be incredibly useful. It allows my browser to keep track of the websites I frequent, my favorite websites to provide content that is relevant to my interests, and for my social media accounts to remember my usernames and passwords so I don’t have to enter them every time I sign in (otherwise I’d forget them all). But here’s the difference: I willingly provide my favorite websites and social media outlets with personal information. These third-party tracking domains are sneaking around in the background, gathering my information without my knowledge or consent. The laws on ePrivacy vary wildly from country to country. An article on the MIT Technology Review site explains that while the European Union and Australia have very specific laws outlining what user data can be collected and how users are to be notified, China and Turkey have no specific laws at all, and therefore third-party tracking tends to be quite popular. The author also says that the laws in countries like the U.S. and Russia the laws are super complex. On the other hand, Germany hasn’t enacted any ePrivacy laws at all. This explains why countries like the U.S., Russia, and Germany have such a large number of third-party trackers, says the author.

All that said, I certainly don’t have sufficient knowledge on the subject to be educating anyone about online tracking or ePrivacy laws. However, I thought it was important to share my experience and what I’ve learned so far. Until recently, I had no idea of the extent to which my personal information was being tracked and collected online. The visualization of my web activity really opened my eyes and made me want to learn more on the subject of ePrivacy and Security, and how user data is collected, stored, and used by trackers. I suggest that everyone give the LightBeam app a try. Do what you can to educate and protect yourself. The concept of privacy is becoming increasingly ambiguous, but it does still exist.

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