Mozilla Lightbeam Looks To Visualise Global Web Tracking

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Lightbeam will allow users to visualise the way third parties track their web usage

Mozilla has launched an ambitious project intended to visualise the way third parties track users across the web, based on crowdsourced web usage data contributed via a new browser add-on called Lightbeam.

The open source tool, the second iteration of a project initially called Collusion, was released on Friday and works as an add-on to Mozilla’s Firefox browser.

Lightbeam allows users to track their own web usage patterns and the way in which those patterns are monitored by third parties, such as the advertising networks run by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others. Mozilla argues that if users better understand how such monitoring works, they will be in a better position to control how it is used.

Mozilla Lightbeam

“At Mozilla, we believe that everyone should be in control of their user data and privacy, and we want to help you have the ability to make informed decisions about your web experience,” wrote Mozilla privacy officer Alex Fowler in a blog post. “With the Lightbeam for Firefox add-on and open data, we’re providing a valuable community research platform to raise awareness, promote analysis and, ultimately, effect change in the area of privacy.”

LightbeamAdvertising networks, for instance, routinely track user activity across various websites, allowing them to build up profiles of individual users which can then be used to deliver targeted adverts. Some browsers have now integrated a “do not track” option, but this option has come under fire by advertisers, and in any case, advertisers’ participation in the “do no track” programme is voluntary.

New in Lightbeam is the ability to contribute data to a “big-picture” data set that is intended to clarify how third-party tracking works across the web, according to Mozilla.

“Call it a Wizard of Oz moment for the Web, where users can collectively pull back the curtain see its inner-workings,” Fowler wrote.

The company said it is working with online publishers on how the crowdsourced data set can best be used. “Once the open data set has time to mature, we’ll continue to explore how publishers can benefit from additional insights into the interaction of third parties on their sites,” wrote Fowler.

Privacy

Mozilla assured users that the data they contribute will be aggregated anonymously. The software does not log users’ IP addresses and can be easily uninstalled, the company said.

Other new features include improved graphing and geographic data, an option that allows users to plot their browsing history over a 24-hour period, a “watch list” that can be used to block particular sites and a list view that displays all sites visited, including third-party sites.

The software is initially available only for desktop browsers, with Mozilla saying that it has been unable to reach agreements with companies such as Google and Apple on the release of tracking technology for mobile platforms. Mozilla has launched its own mobile platform, Firefox OS, but its market presence remains small compared with the likes of iOS and Android.

Lightbeam was released to coincide with the UK Mozfest user conference in London over the weekend, with Fowler and Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman in attendance. Mozfest included a focus on privacy, according to Fowler.

The release also coincided with the “Stop Watching Us” anti-surveillance rally in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, an event mounted in response to the continuing disclosures around government surveillance initiated by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden.

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