Mozilla Lightbeam Tool for Firefox Illuminates Who is Watching Web Users With online privacy at the top of the public’s mind in the wake of revelations of the US’s NSA surveillance program, Mozilla, the open-source community behind the popular Firefox browser, has launched Lightbeam, an add-on for Firefox that will reveal just who is looking over your shoulder as you browse the internet.
Most web users have long been aware that their digital trail is being tracked, being utilized for targeted advertising. Search for hotels in South Carolina and “miraculously” you’ll be seeing ads for hotels in South Carolina popping up on sites all across your internet travels for weeks to come. Users who install and activate Lightbeam on their computers will be able to view real-time visualizations of the sites’s they’ve visited and the third-party entities that are harvesting their data for commercial purposes.
The add-on allows users to opt-in to anonymously sharing their data, which will go towards producing a “big picture” view of web tracking, revealing the activity of these third-party data aggregators. Mozilla’s executive director, Mark Surman says: “It’s a stake in the ground in terms of letting people know the ways they are being tracked. At Mozilla, we believe everyone should be in control of their user data and privacy and we want people to make informed decisions about their Web experience.” While many are cognizant of cookies installed on one’s computer when visiting a website, many are unaware of third parties’ access to those cookies to glean the interests and browsing history of browsers to build a digital picture of individual users to then use for marketing purposes.
While Firefox and other major browsers provide for the option of disabling cookies and the EU has passed “The Cookie Law,” which requires sites to explicitly state how they will be using users’ data and who they will share it with as well as receiving consent from users prior to allowing cookies to be installed on their computers. For users who have activated Lightbeam, when they visit a website, the add-on creates a real time visualization of all the third parties that are active on that page. As they then browse to a second site, the add-on highlights the third parties that are also active there and shows which third parties have tracked their presence on both sites. The visualization will grow with every site visited.
While according to Mozilla they have had “tremendous pressure” exerted on them by trade bodies who would have preferred to continue their work unobserved and behind the curtain, the group feels it is duty-bound to bring transparency to the Web, particularly in today’s climate of user uneasiness about how their data is being utilized and whether their privacy has been compromised. Site owners who have agreements with third parties that track users of their sites are advised to make sure that you are comfortable with the structure of the relationship becoming public knowledge, as we would predict that the aggregation of this data will reveal relationships that will cost some sites customers. This browser tool also bring to light just how far ad networks and commercial user tracking have come in a short amount of time. Navigating the best practices available to strike a balance between customer-focused service and privacy protection is likely to be a major point of emphasis in the months or years to come from a Department of Justice and Search Engine Optimization perspective as well.