News

Emily Carr University and Mozilla create online privacy tool

With every click on the Internet, information is being collected about you without your consent or knowledge. However, Mozilla and faculty and students at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design have created a new browser add-on that allows you to see who is tracking you in real time.

Internet Surveillance

It’s called Lightbeam, and the information it reveals is quite disturbing.

It charts every site you visit, and every third-party that operates on those sites that could be collecting and sharing your data.

Do you know who is watching you?

According to Lightbeam, when we visited TED.com to watch  Gary Kovacs’ talk about online tracking, we also (unknowingly) linked to 14 third parties including Facebook.com, Adobe.com, Google-Analytics.com, Scorecardresearch.com, Chartbeat.com, and Innworldwide.com.

Lightbeam is a year-long collaboration between Lightbeam’s lead developer Dethe Elza, ECUAD Associate Professor Amber Frid-Jimenez and students at ECUAD’s Social + Interactive Media (SIM) Centre.

Building on Mozilla’s existing “proof of concept” demo (called Collusion), the team refined the demo to become the Lightbeam product.

The team’s fine tuning included making the display easier to understand by adding filtering. Now you can see just the last site you visited, the last 10 sites, the last day or even the last week. The team also created multiple visualizations so you can see the information as a list, graph or clock.

How Lightbeam for Firefox works:

  1. Download and run the Lightbeam add-on in your Firefox browser.
  2. When you visit a site and that site contacts a third party, Lightbeam collects the following type of data: domains of the visited sites and third parties, the existence of cookies, and a rough timestamp of when the site was visited.
  3. Lightbeam visually graphs these events to highlight the interactions between sites you intentionally visit and the third parties.
  4. Your graph will grow as you browse the web. This will allow you to take a closer look into the relationships between the various first and third party sites that are stored in your data. You can also reset or save your data.
  5. By default, information collected by Lightbeam remains in your browser and is not sent to Mozilla, but you can choose to contribute your Lightbeam data. This data will help Mozilla and others to understand third party relationships on the web and promote further research in the field of online tracking and privacy.

Web tracking is not a hundred per cent evil—personal data can make your browsing more efficient; cookies can help your favorite websites stay in business.

However, before you can decide what level of risk you’re willing to undertake online, you need to know who is tracking you and what they’re doing with your data. Lightbeam helps you do that by showing you which sites you’re really visiting.

Notable quotes:

“Third parties are an integral part of the way the Internet works today. However, when we’re unable to understand the value these companies provide and make informed choices about their data collection practices, the result is a steady erosion of trust for all stakeholders.” – Alex Fowler, Global Privacy & Public Policy Leader, Mozilla

“Privacy isn’t a philosophical abstraction. It’s what lets us control who we are through what we choose to reveal. It’s core to our autonomy, identity, and dignity as individuals. Privacy is what lets us trust that our laptops, phones, apps, and services are truly ours and not working against us. Abandoning privacy means accepting a Web where we are no longer informed participants.” – Alex Fowler, Global Privacy & Public Policy Leader, Mozilla

“Lightbeam is mostly about making visible what is an invisible transaction that you’re taking part in. A lot of people who are attracted to use Lightbeam are already self-educated about privacy and are running programs that block third parties so Lightbeam isn’t that useful to them. But for people who don’t really understand the online privacy issue it’s eye opening.” – Dethe Elza, Lead Developer, Lightbeam Project (Mozilla)

“Emily Carr University’s visualization research for Lightbeam enables users to understand their personal relationship to online tracking. Our visualizations for Lightbeam will contribute to increased transparency about how personal information is collected and propagated by third parties, a key issue of online privacy.” – Amber Frid-Jimenez, Associate Professor, Faculty of Design + Dynamic Media, Emily Carr University of Art + Design

Learn more:

 

Photo credit: “Internet Surveillance” © 2013 Mike Licht, available under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Related Stories decorative green dots