It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and so it is with a view of privacy.   There has been much discussion in the press of late about the change in Google’s privacy policy and how that will impact Google’s ability to track everything about us.  That all by itself is troubling.  But, it is not only Google who wants to know how you search — so too do other organizations with which you do business.  To learn just how much of my behavior is being recorded, I installed the new add-on to Firefox called Collusion.  The whole purpose  of Collusion is to help you track who is tracking you in real time.  According to their website,  Collusion “shows, in real time, how that data creates a spider-web of interaction between companies and other trackers.”

There are two handy tools they provide, wonderful visualizations (as we will discuss in a moment) and an audio clue whenever information is being shared about your surfing.  The audio clue is a clicking sound that resembles the sound of a typewriter key hitting the paper.  I recommend you turn it on for a while because it quickly helps you become very aware of just how much information is being shared.   The constant clicking when you select a link — and even clicking when you are not using your browser if you have a page open and it refreshes — helps to sensitize you to the amount of information being shared.  After a while, it gets annoying, so remember how to turn it off too!

Now for the visuals.  I downloaded the application and began to do some surfing.  The map of the information sharing is shown below.

The visualization is interesting.  The circles with the halos represent places that you have visited during your surfing, while the circles in gray are ones you have not visited.  An arrow from one to the other indicates that the first site has sent third party cookies to the other site.  I recognize some of the icons like Blogger, LinkedIn, Adobe, Facebook, MSNBC, and Northwestern University.  Others have no icons or they are not ones familiar to me.

If you hover over any of the circles, you will get the URL for the site (for example as I hover over the Facebook logo, I see facebook.com).  In addition, it will highlight all of the connections to and from that site.  So, I see that Facebook sent third party cookies to bit.ly, cbs.com, and reference.com.  I also see that cbs.com sent third party cookies to facebook.com.

I was surprised by the number of hits and the links between the hits because I am careful about not accepting cookies from sites that I do not know.  So, I decided to clean out all of my cookies  and surfed some more.  The number of hits reduced for a while as shown below.

Another View of Surfing Behavior with Collusion

Things were a little better, but notice how much information is being shared even without the cookies.  That is because the websites use third party applications to collect the data and share the data.

After a few hours of surfing by my husband or myself, the map looked like:

A Map of Surfing for a Few Hours using Collusion

And, after an entire weekend, the map looked like:

The Data Collection from A Weekend of Surfing with Collusion

If you did not think people were watching your behavior before, you certainly should be convinced with this image.  Further, the links between the sites, where they now have joint data begins to paint a picture of who you are and what they might do to get or keep your business, or how they can sell your data to others who want to market to you.

The creators of Collusion recognize that the tool is a work-in-progress.  The website says they are working on adding more features, such as the ability to click on any node in the graph and tell Firefox to block third-party cookies to that site, and visualizing other methods of tracking besides third-party cookies.

Using Collusion was an eye-opening experience.  I am looking forward to that add-on that allows us to block these third-party cookies.  What I do is private, right?

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