Watching the watchers

In a recent TED talk by Gary Kovacs CEO of Mozilla he introduced a new plugin called Collusion that allows you to see – at a glance – just how much information is being gleaned from you when you surf the web. And all without your permission.

As knowledge really is power collecting data about users should come as no surprise. Sometimes this is used for targeted advertising and that’s fine if you you chose to allow it. But as Collusion shows visiting a site can set off a range of other sites you haven’t visited that start storing information about where you’ve been what you’ve viewed and more. And as Kovacs explains in his talk tracking and collecting data on you me and everyone else is a multi-billion dollar business.

Collusion helps to reveal the intricate web of information tracked about you as you browse.

So what can you do about it?

You can’t necessarily stop it completely but it can help to simply be aware that when you browse the net – even using ‘safe’ modes like Chrome’s Incognito – that you actually leave a trail that sites make it their business to follow.

To see Kovac’s talk head here. For now here’s a brief rundown on Collusion and what you can do to try and keep your data to yourself.


Currently Collusion is a Firefox-only plugin so if you use IE or Chrome you’ll need to fire up Firefox to give it a go. To install Collusion head here.

Once installed restart Firefox and well do what you normally do. Later click on the small Collusion icon in the bottom-right of Firefox to show a dynamic map of the sites you visited and those that you didn’t where information has been stored about your visit.

Sites with a halo are the ones you chose to visit. You will often notice ancillary sites connected to these that were informed of your visit and where this data is being sent to. One site can connect to many others and these may then further share information about you with other sites.

All in all it’s a very eye-opening view of the sort of trail you leave just by browsing the web – even if you don’t submit any personal information at all and just click links as you browse sites are building a profile of your movements what you like and anything else your activities indicate.

Preventing being tracked

This isn’t necessarily easy. Some browsers like Firefox and IE (but not unfortunately Chrome) have a setting along the lines of ‘Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked’. This sets a flag in the HTTP header that tells a site not to store information about your visit. Unfortunately however this doesn’t mean much – a site has to honour it for it to be effective and most every site you visit won’t be aware of the setting let alone honour it.

However this doesn’t mean you have no control. Tracking sites build profiles of you by collating data over time and this is done through the use of cookies.

Cookies if you remember are a tool used by web sites to store information about your visit and they are usually quite helpful: cookies can remember which threads you’ve read on a forum so you easily see new posts next time you visit; they are used to identify you when logged into a web site so you can for example purchase products online; some text fields such as username logins can be auto-populated via cookies; and they are often used to store personalised web site preferences that you choose (such as how many search results to return per page with Google for example).

The fact they can be used to track you is more an abuse of the privilege than the technology itself. Still as your browser stores cookies you have some control over how they are used.

Most browsers allow you to clear individual cookies from web sites or wipe all cookies along with other personalised data in your browser such as the browsing history. Doing this however is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater as nuking all cookies will also clear information you might want stored such as web site preferences.

Hence look for browser settings that allow you to do one or both of the following:
* Allow cookies to be set for the current session only.
* Block third-party cookies.

The first is an easy solution but note that when you close the browser the cookies are deleted so you lose any advantages of using cookies for later visits. The second is more useful – much of the data you see from the Collusion plugin is a result of third-party cookies. These are cookies which don’t form part of the site you are visiting but rather other elements on the site (such as an advert) from another domain that then set cookies in your browser and which are frequently used to track you. By denying third-party cookies only those from the site you actively visit will be stored (and though these could still be used to track you the exposure is much less).

In addition to this or alternatively there are specialised plugins that focus on privacy and can enhance the browser’s own settings such as Do Not Track Plus which is available for Firefox Chrome IE and Safari. Again even just using this plugin for a short time can be a real eye-opener about sites that try to track you.

Inevitably there is a trade-off when you go online – you’re not just consuming information from the net it’s consuming information about you. And as Kovacs pointed out in his talk this is in itself not necessarily a bad thing – if you’re going to come up against advertising it might as well be relevant to you. The problem is when you don’t know what profile of information about you is being stored where it’s being stored who’s using it and most importantly of all whether you’ve given permission for it. Which most of the time is not the case.

It’s important to go in eyes open when you browse the web and if you feel strongly enough to take precautions to keep data about you yours.

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