Spy-ders on the Web? Tracking the Trackers with Lightbeam for Firefox

Source: H+S Tech Solutions

In case you didn’t know, you’re being tracked.

Right now.

But not to worry, so is everyone else. Essentially everything you do on the internet is somehow being monitored and collected. If this is the first time you’re hearing this, it may be a scary realization, however it’s not all bad. There are ways to educate yourself on who is tracking you, how they are doing it and through what sites they are able to access your browsing habits.

Lightbeam and Firefox explain their new-plugin and how it functions. Source: Firefox on YouTube

One such way that you can accomplish this is through the use of a free plug-in for Mozilla Firefox called ‘Lightbeam’. This plug-in allows users to see how their online activities are being tracked for commercial purposes. Lightbeam collects data on all the tracking information being deposited on your computer as you surf the internet. It also enables you to identify who the parties are that are tracking you and from where they are originating. This tracking information being collected on your browsing habits comes in the form of cookies.

Now, in order to understand and use Lightbeam, it is important that you understand what cookies are, as well as what they are used for. Firstly, cookies are not malicious software or programs, they are simply text files that usually contain information such as the site name and user ID of the sites you visit. Cookies are the things that allow sites to remember you, making it easier for you to log into sites you frequently visit. Cookies vary in sophistication and some may include information on how long you spend on each page, the links you clicked and items you may have added to your shopping cart while online shopping. This is where cookies become valuable to companies. They are a way of uncovering your preferences and shopping habits, allowing them to tailor the ads you see and promotions you receive to your specific needs and interests.

So you see, cookies aren’t the evil little programs you may have thought they were, and they do have a useful purpose. That being said, some people may still not want their browsing habits being tracked or may just want to be aware of who is tracking them. That is where Lightbeam comes in. Recently I downloaded Lightbeam and decided to test it out during my lunch break. I visited 9 different sites in 20 minutes, but Lightbeam let me know that I had also interacted with 110 third-party sites who were all collecting cookies on my browsing habits.

Above is a screen capture of my 20 minute browsing session. Source: Screen capture from Lightbeam

As you can see from the graph above, Lightbeam makes it easy for the common user to visualize and understand what is occurring during their browsing sessions. The graph displays the actual sites visited in circles with third-party sites in triangles, linked to the main site that they originated from.

Source: Screen capture from Lightbeam

If you want to look more into detail, Lightbeam also includes a list view that lets you click on a site and see exactly what third-party sites are attributed with them, as well as where in the world they originate. As you can see by the screen capture on the left, a site that I visited connected with 41 third-party sites based in the United States. If this information really bothered me, Lightbeam also gives me the option to block the site entirely.

Overall, I found that Lightbeam is a great tool for educating internet users on how their browsing habits are being tracked so that they are able to make informed decisions about their online activities. Through the use of this plug-in I was able to identify who is tracking me, empowering me to make my own decisions on who is welcome and who I would rather avoid.